Guest writer Asheley Van Ness, Associate Principal, Civic Consulting Alliance, Chicago
For two years, Civic Consulting Alliance and our partners have been helping to address issues in the criminal justice system, including revamping Cook County Central Bond Court.
We have been working with Cook County’s criminal justice stakeholders—the Cook County Board President, Sheriff, Chief Judge, State’s Attorney, Public Defender, Clerk, the Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts, and the Illinois Supreme Court—to reduce the detainment of non-violent individuals.
As a result of this collaboration, 2,400 fewer people are detained every day in Cook County Jail and nearly half of all individuals are released from Bond Court without having to post a money bail, compared to Bond Court proceedings two years ago.
This collaboration has included seven projects and eight pro bono partners since its start. As one example, CannonDesign worked with the stakeholders and former detainees to understand the challenges created by the current physical design of the courtroom. The team identified several factors that prevent judges from receiving the information needed to make well-informed, fair decisions and that limit the public’s understanding of court proceedings. CannonDesign then created designs to address the physical problems and transform the courtroom into an environment that commands dignity and decorum and facilitates better decision-making.
The stakeholders all agreed to the proposed changes, and construction of the new courtroom is scheduled to begin.
By changing the physical courtroom design, we hope to improve trust and mutual respect between everyone in the courtroom, ensure judges receive the information they need to make fair bond decisions, and ultimately improve outcomes for detainees.
“The redesign of the Central Bond Court presented us with a compelling, challenging design problem, which affects many of our fellow citizens on a daily basis,” said Delia Conache, a project architect at CannonDesign. “Our team greatly enjoyed the close partnership with Civic Consulting Alliance over the course of the project, as well as the close collaboration with the stakeholder agencies involved.”
Across America, businesses invest billions in pro bono services. In case after case, however, the civic spirit doesn’t translate into civic results. How can we fix this?
Too often, nonprofit and government executives look at securing pro bono support as an end in itself. We focus on finding a company to loan their staff, but then don’t pay as much attention to how to manage the free resources. As a result, too many projects end up sitting on a shelf. This poor implementation record has led to the common refrain: “You get what you pay for.”
The success rate is particularly dispiriting given the growing interest in pro bono work from the private sector. At conference after conference, skills-based volunteering is emerging as a hot trend. According to surveys, companies are looking for pro bono projects that are rewarding for their staff, provide professional development, and generate impact.
In any project, impact depends on a partner’s ability to deliver and also on the government agency’s skill at management. In many ways, managing pro bono resources is just the same as managing any other resources. It requires time, commitment, and honest feedback, even to the point of firing. In other ways, managing pro bono resources can be different: you need to be open with them before they’re on board, and the work needs to be meaningful.
Whoever your partner is, to translate their civic spirit into civic results, you need to be a good client for them. That means engaging them in the problem you’re trying to solve, not micromanaging their working activities. It means formalizing the relationship, just as you would with a contractor. And it means being open and honest even though it’s free. The following six guidelines spell out how to put these principles into practice.
Paint the big picture
Treat it as a “real” project
If it’s not working, speak up
Don’t get distracted
A transit authority executive noted that pro bono partners are better than paid vendors ― and not because of the price. In a typical procurement, he needs to specify the solution in detail before signing a contract. Sometimes, in the course of the work, he realizes the specifications were wrong, and he ends up paying the vendor to undo the work.
In contrast, with a pro bono partner, you’re not constrained by the public sector procurement process, and you have the chance to get experts to help you with the scope and specs. When the consultant is free, you have the freedom to figure out what you really need.
Paint the big picture
Companies contribute their time because they hope to make a real difference in the community. In practice, they donate three or four months of effort, which really isn’t enough to fix a sweeping problem. Therefore, it’s important for you to communicate how the project fits into the bigger picture.
In this vein, one city hall executive has secured millions of dollars of pro bono services because she provides full information about the problem and her situation. As she notes, “Once you describe the big picture, companies get really excited. They may end up doing graphic design for a public presentation, or legal analysis for new regulations, or a database of geographical and demographic data, but they understand how their small piece contributes to the big issues they read about in the paper.”
Treat it as a “real” project
Even when top companies are donating their time, the fact that their services are “free” can lead government agencies to believe they can define a project on the fly. Since the most successful projects have a fairly focused scope, officials should resist the temptation to improvise and instead chart a clear course at the outset.
Consider this example, when a budget director was asking an investment banker for help. She explained how they got into the situation (multi-hundred-million budget gap) and some of her big ideas to fix it. In response, the investment banker proposed a six week analysis to test these ideas. They staffed the project together, so that the analysis could be incorporated in real time into the executive budget. It works so well, the bank came back to do a similar project the following year and give another round of analysts the same high-impact experience.
If you wouldn’t pay a company to do work without a scope, why would you want a free company to work aimlessly? This approach will still siphon time from you and your staff―you just won’t know to what end.
If it’s not working, speak up
It’s hard to give good feedback to people giving things for free. (As noted above, these services aren’t really free.) Nonetheless, one of the best ways to develop rapport with a pro bono partner is to give targeted negative feedback when merited. Rather than turning away or shutting down, you will likely see an increased commitment to the project.
For example, here’s a great experience that was actually a horrible situation. The project wasn’t going anywhere. The team had spent two months on the ground without anything to show for it, and the project looked like a colossal waste of time. At that point, the agency head called the company requested a new project manager. Later, the company’s office head recalled, “This call showed a level a trust, a level of commitment – it was a chance to get back on track.”
Remember that ignoring a poorly performing project will guarantee that it produces nothing of value. Since companies do pro bono work for the public good, all parties are losing out.
Don’t get distracted
One of the top complaints of those who do pro bono work (although they rarely complain) is that government agencies aren’t responsive. Maybe they’ve asked for some analysis but don’t make the time to hear the results. Or a problem comes up, but they don’t make a decision. Or the partner sends emails but gets no reply.
In contrast, when professionals describe good work experiences, the responsiveness sounds a lot like the basics: you return calls, you don’t cancel meetings, you read your e-mail. But the basics take time – particularly when many agencies are already overwhelmed with their core responsibilities. Although being responsive can seem like a huge commitment, the benefits are apparent very quickly. As one senior consultant related, “The clients we work with are used to being reactive. Our resources give them the chance to be proactive―that’s what the time is for.”
Even before a project wraps up, it’s critical is to take action. Without your decision and action, their investment will wither on the shelf.
It’s easy to name the obstacles to implementation: your staff might be skeptical, you might not have all the details figured out, or maybe you don’t yet have the funds allocated for new systems. One of the biggest frustrations is when the end result is “shelfware”: detailed reports and recommendations, representing weeks or months of work, that just sit on a shelf.
To ensure that all of the work actually translates into tangible impact, it’s critical to assign staff as early as possible to oversee the implementation. The challenge: many government agencies simply don’t have the capacity. In the era of ever reducing head counts, it can be tough to find qualified staff who are willing and able to take on additional work.
We must be realistic about their capacity: if an initiative isn’t enough of a priority to assign an effective project manager, why should a partner donate its time and resources?
When executives from top companies in the city offer their assistance, it can be incredibly difficult to turn down. Government officials, resist the temptation to accept such help unless you are prepared to match the contributions of a partner with your own strategic vision and organizational resources. When you commit to these six guidelines, you’ll enjoy both long-term relationships – and results that really matter to your constituents.
But with disinvestment from all levels of government, NYCHA has been unable to keep homes in good shape and to connect residents to community resources and economic opportunities.
“Aggressive action is necessary to deliver to NYCHA’s residents the resources and services they have long deserved, and to sustain the Authority for the long term,” according to NYCHA Chair Shola Olatoye. Therefore, NYCHA developed a long-term plan to change fundamentally how they operate in order to create safe, clean, connected communities.
In the midst of planning, the non-partisan nonprofit Civic Consulting offered pro bono assistance. And the first area of collaboration has been to develop a ground-floor leasing strategy.
With 328 developments around the city, NYCHA has tremendous space on the ground floor, in fact, 2.5 million square feet that’s non-residential. Roughly a tenth is zoned commercial, and those storefronts enjoy very low vacancy. The other spaces are often under-utilized or off line altogether: former laundry rooms, management offices, community centers, storage, and more.
As NYCHA leadership – including the Chair and the Vice President of Real Estate Services – discussed these assets with Civic Consulting, it became clear that NYCHA alone did not have the resources to repair and reprogram these spaces. New partnerships would be needed.
The question is, who has both the interest and the resources to unlock the potential of these spaces?
How do you upgrade millions of square feet of public housing?
Can going to public hospitals to get treated become a positive experience?
At the Meeting of the Minds, Alexander Shermansong moderated a keynote conversation around “Local Answers for Under-Resourced Cities,” with two of his New York collaborators, Karina Totah, Senior Advisor to the Chair at New York City Housing Authority and Steven Newmark, Senior Policy Advisor & Counsel to Mayor Bill Bill de Blasio – two forward-thinking government change-makers.
The conversation speaks to how pro bono services can enable city government to implement lasting solutions, leading to meaningful impact for millions of people.
“When you constantly deal with a deficit, the idea of trying of being forward-thinking and thinking long-term becomes more difficult to do,” says Steven. “That’s really when you need to bring individuals that can cross those sectors, that can bring those agencies, external experts, and staffers together.”