For more than two years, in the mid-1990s, I served as a Peace Corps volunteer building potable water systems in rural Bolivia. Later, as a marketing professional navigating the waters of information technology and professional services, I often reflected on my Peace Corps experience. I wondered if there might be an opportunity to put my marketing skills to work to not only drive corporate revenues and growth but to also benefit a nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing an important social or environmental cause.
And then I came across the Taproot Foundation. Today the nation’s largest nonprofit consulting firm, having donated over $21 million in pro bono services to more than 525 organizations, Taproot was founded by a young social entrepreneur named Aaron Hurst. As it happens, Hurst is the grandson of Joseph Slater, who some forty-five years earlier as a State Department official under President Kennedy wrote the original blueprint for the Peace Corps.
When I sat down with him last week at Taproot’s headquarters, a sunny loft near San Francisco’s Union Square, Hurst spoke passionately about how he continues to be inspired by his grandfather’s idea of bridging cultures through work. “A lot of people try to do it in a superficial way, as tourists,” he explains. “But to really succeed, you have to roll up your sleeves. Work is a powerful tool for building bridges between communities.”
Early in his career, even while still a student at the University of Michigan, Hurst concluded that an enormous chasm separates the non-profit sector from the for-profit sector. He began to ask himself: What would it take to create a Peace Corps for the business community? What organizational structure would allow non-profit professionals and business professionals to work together productively, breaking down the barriers that stand between them?
By 2001, Hurst thought he had the answer. He took his proposal to Bill Draper, the prominent Silicon Valley venture capitalist who had recently created the Draper Richards Foundation to fund social entrepreneurs. As a result, Hurst secured $300,000 in seed funding for startup operations. The goal was to launch a national organization that, according to Draper Richards, “combines the efficiencies of traditional grant-making organizations and volunteer matching services with the quality management practices of leading business consulting firms.”
Six years and many institutional and individual funding partnerships later, Taproot is well on its way to realizing Hurst’s vision for engaging a sizable number of the nation’s business professionals, which at last count includes 785,000 marketing professionals, to help build the infrastructure of the nonprofit sector. With more than 3,000 active volunteers and offices in major cities including Boston, Seattle and New York City (and soon, Los Angeles and Washington, DC), Taproot is growing by leaps and bounds.
As an organization that seeks to attract marketing practitioners, it’s no surprise that Taproot is demonstrating its own brand of marketing savvy—for example, working with job boards and career resources in creative ways to increase visibility. Taproot is currently engaged in a partnership with the President’s Council to host an event called The Pro Bono Summit, with the purpose of instilling a strong pro bono service ethic in the business community, much as the American Bar Association has long done in the legal community, and mobilizing business professionals with transferable skills to perform more pro bono work.
I was delighted when I learned early last year that the Taproot Foundation was setting up shop in my hometown of Chicago and I didn’t waste any time signing up as a volunteer (and, a few months later, as a member of the advisory board). Since then, mirroring the success that Taproot has enjoyed elsewhere, the Chicago office has recruited hundreds of marketing and IT professionals to donate their skills to local nonprofits involved in causes related to the environment, health, social services and education.
“These professionals are among Chicago’s best and brightest,” says Vicky Nurre, the managing director of Taproot-Chicago, noting that many of the volunteers come from leading agencies like AC Nielson, Arc Worldwide, Avenue A/Razorfish, DDB Chicago, Deloitte, Draft FCB and Fair Isaac, the marketing solutions provider where I hang my hat, as well as from major corporations like Kraft Foods, PepsiCo and Sara Lee. “We have launched a significant pro bono movement,” she proudly states.
I feel proud, too, having recently completed my first Taproot service grant project. During the four-month engagement I played the role of brand strategist, working as part of a talented six-person team assigned to a so-called community development corporation in the economically-impoverished-but-culturally-vibrant neighborhood of Little Village, located on Chicago’s West side. Other team members included a copywriter, an account director and a marketing manager.
By all accounts, the project—basically, helping the nonprofit craft new marketing messages—was an unqualified success. “Understanding how to effectively engage key audiences will enable us to successfully market ourselves and generate more resources to achieve our mission of improving the quality of life in Little Village,” says Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, the nonprofit’s executive director (and a former state senator). “This has been a truly great experience developing practical tools to improve our organization.”
A taproot is defined as a core root that grows straight downward from the stem. A turnip is a good example. It gathers nutrients from lateral roots and delivers them to a plant to enable it to flourish. By the same token, the Taproot Foundation views itself as a core root for the nonprofit sector, drawing nutrients from the community and delivering them to nonprofits to enable them to thrive.
The botany metaphor works well. So, too, does Taproot’s high-growth model. At a time of declining grant making and corporate giving, Taproot is enjoying a groundswell of support and enthusiasm from a diversity of major organizations, from service grant sponsors like Wells Fargo, Lehman Brothers and Time Warner to various trade associations, including local chapters of the American Marketing Association. Today, over 90% of the pro bono work completed by Taproot is done in partnership with foundations, corporations and philanthropists.
While Hurst readily admits that the organization’s rapid growth can cause internal stress, it has also forced the organization to build an infrastructure for scale (including detailed project-specific templates) that has been instrumental in its success. Hurst notes that the biggest challenge as a decentralized organization has been staffing. “We want to make sure we’re bringing in the best people to make the organization hum,” he says. “But the reality is that there aren’t that many highly talented people who can work in an environment with as little structure as we have.”
Hurst seems less concerned about eventually attracting the ranks of volunteers needed to build capacity, although demand will probably always outstrip supply. Currently, Taproot has enough volunteer resources to approve fewer than fifty percent of service grant applications. But he believes that it’s mostly just a matter of letting people know that the organization exists. “We need to get in front of as many marketing, design and writing professionals as we can,” he says, “because when people hear about it they want to do it.”
The reasons people want to do it are varied. “For professionals who have been working in one place for a while, the opportunity to apply their skills in a new setting can be a big stretch for them and really reinvigorating,” Hurst explains. Social and professional networking can be another big selling point. “We have so many stories of volunteers getting new jobs and even meeting the person they’re going to marry by doing pro bono work,” he says.
Others, like me, simply like the idea of using their marketing skills to do something they find socially redeeming and personally rewarding. Hurst tells the story of a volunteer who, when asked why he decided to become involved, replied, “My five year old son asked me what I do for a living and I didn’t like my answer.”
Joseph Slater would be pleased by his grandson’s achievement. Certainly, it’s easy to draw parallels between the Peace Corps and the Taproot Foundation in terms of a shared ideology of giving and the benefits for volunteers. Of course, there are also plenty of differences, not the least of which is the fact that Taproot volunteers don’t have to give up electricity and running water.
Jeff Zabin is coauthor of “Precision Marketing” (Wiley, 2004) and a director in the Precision Marketing Group at Fair Isaac. He blogs at www.paretorules.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Previous articles by Jeff Zabin:
The Softer Side of Marketing Analytics
Channel Integration: Multiple Languages, Seamless Integration
Precision Marketing Is a Green Initiative
A Nation of 300 Million Records
Cracking the Code on Next-Generation Code Promotions
Marketing Dashboards: The Visual Display of Marketing Data
Placing Sure Bets on Customer Knowledge
Visa: Life Takes Rebranding
Jim Brickman Plays the Music of Precision Marketing
The Netflix Paradox: Are Loyal Customers Sinking Your Stock?
Making Sense of Super Bowl Spots in the Age of Precision Marketing
When It Comes to Contextual Marketing, Think Like Chip Davis