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Convinced that core social issues are better addressed through a strengthened citizen sector and an actively engaged business community, Aaron Hurst is mobilizing business professionals to contribute their expertise to their communities and help them make service an integral part of their careers.
The New Idea
Aaron Hurst created the Taproot Foundation to harness human capital to improve the human condition. Inspired by the Peace Corps model for bridging cultures through peer-to-peer relationships, Aaron has devised a similar process to bridge the corporate and citizen sectors. He has found a way to bring together business professionals and nonprofit leaders as peers in extended, team-based projects, and apply quality management practices to ensure that these engagements have a concrete value to all participants. The projects challenge and enlighten the volunteers, strengthen both the citizen sector and private sector organizations, and benefit the community.Aaron recognized that in our fast-paced mobile society, business professionals seek to gain a voice in and contribute meaningfully to their communities, but often lack the social networks to do so. His idea is to mobilize these individuals into a corps of skilled volunteers that will be a “taproot” of growth and development for the social sector. With the help of the Taproot Foundation, they will expand our country’s capacity to solve entrenched social problems. Aaron envisions a society in which marketing, technology, human resources, accounting, and other professionals work side by side with professionals in the citizen sector for the benefit of their communities.
Few nonprofit organizations grow beyond the $3 to $5 million level, largely because to go beyond that they need expert help that they cannot afford in core areas such as branding, Website design, database design and management, accounting and human resources. While there is a growing understanding in the philanthropic arena that a strong program needs a strong organization to support it, most government grants restrict funding to program services and less than 10 percent of foundation grants may be used to build infrastructure. As a result, the capacity-building needs of the citizen sector are chronically underfunded. Without these resources, organizations are unable to develop the skill and systems needed to get to scale. And, the number of nonprofits has outpaced the amount of funding available, placing further strain on capacity-building resources. Given the dramatic growth of the sector, the leadership is thin; nonprofit leaders often lack experience in critical areas of infrastructure development.At the same time, mid-career workers who are skilled in these areas seek creative, socially significant outlets for their talents but have difficulty finding substantive volunteer roles that use their skills and fit into their work and family lives. They do not have the time to find a nonprofit in need of their particular expertise, create a team to design and implement a project that meets the need, and determine what resources are needed and available to accomplish the task. They are left with few options: writing a check to a good cause, working on fundraising events or awareness campaigns, or signing on as a traditional, hands-on volunteer. Indeed, in the last 25 years, volunteering has decreased by about 30 percent for ages 31-35, and approximately 15 percent for ages 36-40. The loss is particularly hard-felt in community projects, because collective civic acts have diminished more rapidly than assistance provided by one person to another.The distance between the business and citizen sectors perpetuates stereotypes that stand in the way of cooperation. The business community sees nonprofit service organizations as poorly managed and weak but well-meaning, while the nonprofit community views businesses as self-serving, with little or no concern for (and often acting against the interest of) the common good. Poorly managed, loosely defined, superficial interactions have served only to discourage future engagements and have stunted efforts at capturing the value-added contributions that each sector can offer the other.
The Taproot Foundation is redefining volunteering to set the stage for engaging large numbers of business professionals in the work of the citizen sector. Aaron created a service grant model to offer talented professionals the opportunity to work in teams on clearly defined projects to meet the needs of citizen sector organizations. Recipients of these in-kind resources are selected through a competitive process that considers the impact of the organization on the community, and its ability to be an effective partner in the service project. Grantees must be strong organizations that have a critical need for the project, management and board support for its success, and the financial and human resources required to complete the project. Last year 208 nonprofits applied for grants; 81 grants were awarded.The Taproot Foundation matches the need for services with the volunteers who can provide them, makes the services available at no cost to the recipient organization, and applies quality management practices from the project’s inception to its completion. Volunteer specialists in marketing, information technology, management and human resources are screened to make sure they have the skills and commitment needed. (Last year 1,100 volunteers applied; 600 have been engaged in projects to date.) Each volunteer donates five hours per week to the project for four to six months. The market value of each engagement is between $25,000-$50,000; the Taproot Foundation delivers these services for about 10 percent of that cost. This year Taproot will engage business professionals in 130 pro bono projects valued at $5.2 million.Taproot provides the blueprint and structure for each peer-to-peer project, assembling a team of people from different companies who offer diverse skill sets, and designating a volunteer with project management experience to serve as project officer. All service grants are standardized so the volunteers have defined roles, timelines and deliverables. Following each project, the Taproot Foundation captures the knowledge gained in toolkits for future teams on how to complete successful projects. The teams work in specific areas: naming (and implementing related legal and marketing changes), branding/positioning, brochure design, basic and advanced Website services, donor database selection and implementation, and performance management. The volunteers start out at the nonprofit site, learning about the issue and the organization—its constituencies, market position, human and financial resources. Once the project plan is defined, the teams work largely through virtual consultations. Participants are typically very happy with their experience: to date, 95 percent of Taproot volunteers have requested another engagement.Most of the volunteers are in the under-40 age group found to be least involved in their communities. Their experiences in the citizen sector are starting to influence their colleagues and their companies and break down stereotypes. For example, businesses may view environmental groups as gadflies or adversaries. However, after producing a brochure for an environmental organization, the graphic design volunteers began using environmentally-friendly products and practices at their workplace, and raised awareness of the environmental impact of company policies. Another volunteer team became the marketing board for the nonprofit they had assisted. As the numbers of “returning volunteers” grows, their impact on corporate culture will increase. Corporate leaders find that Taproot projects provide unique, valuable “outside learning opportunities” for mid-career staff, so they are starting to integrate Taproot service grant engagements into their executive development programs. Taproot is creating “blended professionals” with strong ties to their communities who will then become proponents for increased involvement and better understanding within their own corporations and professional networks.The Draper Richards Fellowship for Social Entrepreneurship enabled Aaron to launch the first Taproot office in San Francisco in 2002. With early support from community foundations and the Omidyar Foundation, in two years Taproot became the largest marketing organization in the Bay Area in terms of number of clients served. In 2004, United Way of New York City and leading local foundations helped Taproot open an office in New York City. Taproot plans to establish offices in other major metropolitan areas, and serve smaller cities through these regional hubs. Its budget is also expected to double from this year to next. Taproot’s strategic alliances include the Stanford graduate school alumni association, the Project Management Institute and the American Marketing Association, which is actively working with Taproot to integrate citizen sector engagements into the marketing profession.
Aaron says he was a “hippie brat,” born to parents living in a teepee near Aspen, Colorado and moving every few years as his parents followed their Buddhist teacher. Aaron’s mother was a belly dancer and astrologist; his father is a provost at a Buddhist university. In his family, business was a bad word. Aaron’s grandfather, Joseph E. Slater, a high-ranking state department official in the Kennedy Administration, wrote the blueprint for the Peace Corps and ran the Aspen Institute for over 20 years. His grandfather provided stability in Aaron’s life and became his mentor. He helped Aaron understand the complexity of social issues and the importance of building trust and understanding within the community through collaboration, the core principle of the Peace Corps and Aspen Institute, and of the Taproot Foundation.As a University of Michigan student Aaron developed a for-credit service learning project that brought students into prisons to teach creative writing. In two years he expanded the project to three prisons, and called on professors in the business, psychology and creative writing departments to integrate these content areas into the curriculum. He was the first student named “Faculty Member of the Year” by the Michigan Campus Compact.After college Aaron worked in Chicago to identify and disseminate the best practices of teachers in inner-city high schools, then worked for a foundation that provided small grants to teachers. Inspired by this work but frustrated by the lack of capacity of these organizations to effect change in the public education system, Aaron began to think about how nonprofits could have access to the same infrastructure as corporations. Seeking solutions, he moved to the for-profit world, working in product management at two dot.com companies with socially motivated missions. Over a five year period he gained experience in marketing, finance, technology and human resources that he planned to bring back to the nonprofit world. He started talking to his colleagues about their volunteer work and to nonprofits about their capacity building needs, and quickly saw that his business associates were an untapped resource for the citizen sector. He took it upon himself to overcome the barriers that kept them from working together. He combined his belief in the power of peer-to-peer relationships, his passion for sharing best practices and his appreciation of the impact of returning Peace Corps volunteers and created the Taproot Foundation to build the social capital necessary to strengthen our society.