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Pro Bono's Not Just for Lawyers Anymore

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Marketing manager Stacy Basko started volunteering because she wanted to help others. She didn’t anticipate that her volunteer assignment would lead to a new career in the culinary arts.

Basko is just one of many New York professionals who have beefed up their resumes and their professional networks through volunteering. In today’s tough job market, volunteer work can provide leadership experience and networking opportunities to help you land a new job or launch a whole new career.

That’s because New York nonprofit organizations now offer volunteer opportunities that go way beyond ladling soup. Organizations like StreetWise Partners, a nonprofit that provides mentoring and job training to low-income and unemployed New Yorkers, let volunteers donate their unique skills and talents. Most StreetWise volunteers are experienced Wall Street professionals who enjoy leveraging what they’re good at, the business skills they use every day in their jobs, by teaching them to others.

It’s a new spin on the “pro bono” model popular at many law firms. The Taproot Foundation takes this model a step further by putting together teams of business professionals from different companies to deliver projects for understaffed nonprofits. Taproot volunteers include senior marketing, technology, and project management professionals. Typical projects may involve building a web site, designing a logo, creating an annual report, or consulting on marketing and fundraising strategies.

Taproot founder Aaron Hurst is the grandson of Joseph E. Slater, who wrote the original blueprint for the Peace Corps. Hurst founded the Taproot Foundation to connect business professionals with nonprofits who need their talents and experience. “Pro bono work is a means for working on new skills and applying existing skills to a new environment,” says Hurst. “To make partner at big law firms, you have to do a certain amount of pro bono work. Why can’t we do this at other companies?”

According to Hurst, this model delivers greater benefits for both the volunteers and the nonprofit organizations. “An average hour of volunteer work is worth $17.55,” says Hurst. “Pro bono work is worth well over $100 an hour to the organization.”

Hurst also believes that leadership skills are best taught experientially. Taproot volunteers manage projects, lead people, develop business strategies, and exercise other leadership muscles that can help in climbing the corporate ladder or landing a new job.

Networking is another selling point of pro bono work. Volunteers at organizations like Taproot and StreetWise are a mix of junior and senior-level professionals at major companies in financial services, advertising, consulting, and other industries.

When a volunteer or board member has an opening at their company, they often ask StreetWise to forward the listing to everyone in the volunteer network. As a result, volunteers hear about job openings before they are posted and often have an advantage over other applicants because of their StreetWise connection. Likewise, Hurst says many Taproot volunteers are independent contractors who end up getting work from people they meet on their teams.

Basko, who went from marketing manager to chef, was able to make her career change after volunteering through Taproot for the nonprofit Careers through Culinary Arts Program (C-CAP). “I was able to network in the culinary world,” says Basko. “C-CAP was the catalyst to get me moving in that direction.”

Despite the networking and business benefits, it’s the sense of helping others that keeps most coming back. “It’s the relationships that have mattered most,” says StreetWise volunteer Graeme Christianson. “Just seeing my clients’ success, due to their incredible enthusiasm and focus, it’s amazing what they’ve been able to accomplish.”

Taproot founder Hurst agrees. He believes that ongoing pro bono work offers a deeper level of satisfaction than traditional episodic volunteering. “One-day volunteer projects, which are the norm, are much more field trips than experience,” says Hurst. “Pro bono work in some ways mirrors the Peace Corps model. It’s less about being a tourist and more about being a resident.”

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