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.”
Civic Consulting Minnesota is just getting started, and already they’re making news.
St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman asked the newly formed public-private pro bono partnership for help getting ready for the snow season.
The city is already implementing Civic Consulting’s recommendations and aims to clear snow on 90% of major streets within 20 hours of a major storm. Tracking social media will help identify areas that need extra attention.
Business Mentor NY began working with LinkedIn and Civic Consulting to connect with pro bono professionals throughout New York State. Civic Consulting connected Business Mentor NY with LinkedIn’s Volunteer Marketplace, a site for professionals to identify and pursue skills-based volunteering opportunities.
In a survey, 82% of LinkedIn members stated that they wanted to volunteer their skills.
“Business Mentor NY is a great opportunity for LinkedIn members to do just that, use their professional skills for social good,” said Alison Dorsey of LinkedIn.
The relationship with LinkedIn’s Volunteer Marketplace is a huge win for Business Mentor NY, enabling us to discover and connect with professionals who have expressed interest in high-quality, skills-based volunteering opportunities. And there are quite a few, as over one-million LinkedIn members have indicated that they would like to do skills-based volunteering!
Professionals are actively seeking out volunteer opportunities to leverage their skill sets make a positive impact on the world outside work. LinkedIn members also love Business Mentor NY, with hundreds of professionals applying to mentor our businesses.
Skills-based volunteering is good for your career, too.
Volunteering is a great way to develop leadership skills, expand your professional network, and obtain new skills by trying new approaches. In a LinkedIn survey, 42% of hiring managers stated that they consider volunteer work equivalent to full-time work experience. And 20% said they had hired someone because of her or his volunteer experience.
Try your passion on for size.
Everyone dreams of earning a living from what they love doing. Volunteering is a great way to test-drive your passion as a career. It’s an opportunity to do what you enjoy in a low-risk setting and also highlight your talents, which could prepare you for that dream job.
You never know who you’ll connect with.
Volunteering exposes you to people you would not encounter otherwise. Who knows, maybe you’ll help the next cronut-maker or Steve Jobs get off the ground!
With the help of pro bono partners, Chicago created a single, unified voice for all the great things you can do and see in the city, and tourism is growing.
Like many cities, Chicago used to have separate entities focused on attracting different types of tourists. This appeared to make sense: leisure tourists and business tourists were different animals (so the thinking went), and you needed different strategies and messages to attract each. But Chicago was not competing well in comparison to other cities like New York, and the City leaders wanted to know why.
They reached out to the Civic Consulting Alliance to help them estimate Chicago’s performance against other cities, and better understand the best practices in bringing tourists (and tourist dollars) into Chicago.
With support from the Civic Consulting Alliance and pro bono partners Griffin Strategic Advisors LLC and Jones Day, the City of Chicago looked at ten comparable cities (including Philadelphia and New York), and what they found surprised them. It appeared that cities with unified marketing strategies were more successful at attracting all kinds of tourists.
With this in mind, in the summer of 2012 the City of Chicago merged two separate marketing entities creating a single organization, Choose Chicago, charged with promoting both leisure and business tourism to the city. Since Choose was created, tourism has risen significantly, with record hotel occupancy of more than 75 percent and record visitation of more than 46 million visitors in 2013.
Indeed, Chicago’s efforts have been so successful that now they are getting noticed. The Philadelphia Inquirer recently highlighted Choose Chicago as a model that Philadelphia (one of the ten cities Chicago initially used to compare itself) might want to emulate.
They say imitation is the highest form of flattery, and why wouldn’t another city want to copy a success like this? Bringing together public and private partners to seek new and practical solutions that help cities grow is at the heart of the Civic Consulting model. Kudos to the Civic Consulting Alliance, and to Philadelphia for knowing a good thing when they see it.
“How can you afford to give your services away for free?” People often ask me, “and why wouldn’t a company providing the service want to bill you?”
A lot of people assume if you’re not charging for your services, it’s not worth charging for them. In fact, it used to be the case that “pro bono” meant you couldn’t get anyone to pay you – either because they didn’t have money or because you weren’t very good. Sometimes, it was just a polite way to let go of the people you didn’t want around anymore.
But nowadays it’s different: only the best people get to do pro bono work. Companies actually assign their top stars to community service projects. For example, a few years back we were getting ready for a pro bono project to eliminate paperwork and put more cops on the street. The firm working with us pro bono asked to postpone the project six weeks, because their top project manager was finishing a case in Asia and they wanted their best guy on the job.
Why would they take him off a billable client for community service?
For one, doing good is the right thing to do. Tom Wilson from The Allstate Corporation put it well: “Those of us who are business leaders have a particular responsibility to invest in our communities. We do business in these communities. We live in these communities.”
In fact, three-out-of-four companies see community engagement and impact as a top benefit for pro bono work. “Helping out this way is what GE employees do,” said Mike LaChapelle.
“The primary reason is a genuine desire to contribute,” agreed Jim Rechtin from Bain & Company. Then he went on: ”The side benefit is a tremendously positive impact on our culture and on the recruitment and retention of our employees.”
According to one national survey, 90% of HR professionals believe skills-based volunteering can be an effective way to develop leadership skills. What is it about pro bono projects that make them such fertile training grounds?
“The common cause – coming together to help solve the tough issues that face the urban community, without money in the way – creates a level of trust and respect simply not found in a business-as-usual relationship,” explained IDEO’s Andrew Burroughs. “This heightened level of trust allows access to a vast network of influencers and doers across the city, opening doors that otherwise might be closed, and creating some wonderful learning opportunities along the way.”
You also see an unusual mix of people on pro bono projects, which brings out the best in the team according to Frank Muller from Crust Young: “It is both gratifying and exhilarating to be part of a team with the brightest minds of some of the world’s leading strategy consulting firms.”
As you talk to business leaders across the country, you’ll hear again and again that pro bono is good HR strategy. These projects help their employees find meaning in their work (skills-based volunteers are 38% more likely to have high morale). That keeps their top performers from looking for other places to work. And pro bono projects put them in new situations to test their skills and try different approaches. When finding and retaining the right people is so crucial for your company’s success, you can’t afford not “to give it away for free.”
It’s refreshing to step out of the corporate world for a bit and do a pro bono project. There is a lot that the public and private sectors can learn from each other.
When the new mayor of NYC was coming into office, I had the chance to work with the transition team as a pro bono consultant. Our team (drawn from a few different firms) was part of shaping the future of one America’s greatest cities, with a large and diverse population.
Honestly, I was unsure of how the partners from other firms would come together, but Civic Consulting USA did an excellent job of providing structure and leading the team to accomplish a lot in a short time period.
In this case, each member of the team worked with a subcommittee, and I was in charge of technology. This subcommittee was filled with leaders of some of the city’s largest technology companies, tech entrepreneurs and investors, and academics.
I was able to strengthen my executive communication and leadership skills by planning and conducting workshops with this influential group. I also built a great network of professionals that I still keep in touch with since the project has completed.
At the beginning of any major transition there are lots of big ideas and goals. One of the areas that Civic Consulting USA along with their pro bono partners excelled in was bringing a pragmatic and thorough approach, prioritizing and creating action plans to bring these big ideas to life.
We left the mayor’s new team with a solid start to running the largest and most complicated city in America – and if you can do that here you can do it anywhere!
Delays for customer service requests dropped 80% following a two-day Kaizen event I facilitated with a major state agency. I was impressed by the support and involvement from very senior leaders in the administration who personally offered their time and commitment to make the project happen, right down to the front-line staff who exhibited a real can-do attitude.
For me, it was an exciting opportunity to help launch a new, multi-agency New York State efficiency effort. In part, helping out this way is what GE employees do: each year we volunteer 1.3 million hours in our communities. Moreover, this type of service has been central to my career. In my 28 years with GE, I’ve helped local school systems, chambers of commerce, community colleges, and other non-profit organizations to improve their operations.
When you provide pro bono services, you want the team you’re working with to be as committed as you are. The New York State team leaders made my job easy by gathering all the data needed in advance and completing process maps of the key functions. During the Kaizen event, the participants were open to new ideas and quickly implemented the changes required to reduce customer lead times. The support provided by the IT team was invaluable in quickly implementing systems changes, as well as moving and installing computer hardware.
After the Kaizen event, I shared the great experience that I had with some of the GE Lean Leaders in the Capital District. I have enlisted the help of three of my GE colleagues, Michael Noble-Jack and Jeff Skinkle of GE Power & Water, and Steve Kearney of GE Healthcare, to help facilitate future Kaizen events and support the expansion of the effort in 2014. They are all as excited as I am to share our expertise to help New York State and our local communities.