Lessons in the Power of Data for Good and Pro Bono

In 2017, giving to charitable causes in the United States reached an estimated $410 billion, a record for the third straight year. And yet, despite this growing generosity, the needs have not decreased. One in eight Americans still struggles with hunger, and the poverty rate in the United States has fluctuated between 11 and 15 percent for over fifty years. Increasing charitable giving may not be the long-term answer to resolving complex social challenges. Instead, growth in skills-based volunteering and pro bono projects could be key to unlocking new solutions.

This week marks Pro Bono Week, an annual initiative that celebrates and encourages professionals who use their skills and expertise to support nonprofits and advance social change. Whether pro bono work is completely new for your company or it’s already a strategic part of your philanthropic giving, Pro Bono Week is a great opportunity to review and reflect on how collaborations between your company and nonprofit organizations can advance challenging social issues.

Since Nielsen Cares, our global employee volunteer program began in 2010, skills-based volunteering and pro bono work have been integral to our strategy. By leveraging the data and analytical capabilities that we have as a company, our Data for Good projects have been anchored in Nielsen’s data, products and insights to help nonprofit organizations maximize their impact through improved outreach, messaging, effectiveness and efficiency. So, what have we learned in the eight years since our pro bono journey began? Here are a few of my key takeaways as our program continues to evolve.

Identify Strategic Focus Areas

When you’re considering where to prioritize your pro bono efforts, focus areas should align with your company’s strategy and capabilities. With so many organizations in need, these areas help to act as a filter for the type of projects and relationships your company can consider, and allow you to make a deeper impact over time. Resources like Taproot Foundation’s Pro Bono Sweet Spot can help your company narrow in on key areas. At Nielsen, we settled on four areas of social need that aligned with our business strategy:

  • Hunger and nutrition: The global data we collect about food pricing and consumption, as well as data analysis techniques, can provide nonprofits with the insights they need to drive more efficient and impactful programs.
  • Education: As a professional services company that relies on a STEM-educated workforce, we strive to enable the next generation of leaders to excel in reading, computer literacy, and math.
  • Diversity and inclusion: We help to economically empower diverse communities by increasing awareness of diverse consumer demographics and by driving career readiness for all.
  • Technology: Just as Nielsen’s business depends on technology, social issues can be addressed in new ways through new technology-based solutions.

Communicate a Goal

Having a public goal can help to communicate more strategically about your pro bono projects externally and advocate for pro bono work internally, especially with business leaders who may be new to the company or unfamiliar with your company’s philanthropic investments. Since 2012, Nielsen has pledged $10 million annually in pro bono work, skills-based volunteering, and in-kind giving through A Billion Plus Change. In 2016, that annual pledge fueled our long-term goal to contribute a cumulative $50 million in-kind from 2016 to the end of 2020. By using publicly available resources like the Points of Light volunteer calculator or CECP/Taproot’s standards, valuing your pro bono commitments can really help you to secure internal buy-in and gain external credibility.

Lean In to Experts

If you don’t know where to start with your pro bono program, don’t hesitate to turn to expert organizations. For example, SAP launched their Social Sabbatical for Local Engagement program with PYXERA Global, which has sent over 150 pro bono volunteers across 50 projects in 9 global cities. Databases like Taproot+, Catchafire, and VolunteerMatch can help your employees search for individual opportunities. Browsing those sites and researching the work of the largest organizations working in your focus areas can help you brainstorm project ideas.

Empower Your People

The best source of potential projects could be your own employees. Often times, they have existing relationships with nonprofit organizations and are eager to make a social impact while using or developing their skills. Consider asking interested employees what skills they already have, and what skills they would like to gain through pro bono work. Align with business goals by working with your Human Resources department or a business leader to develop pro bono projects that marry nonprofit needs with individual and business needs. This approach helps to maximize the opportunity for all parties involved. If you have a volunteer time polic, like Nielsen’s 24 hours of Dedicated Volunteer Time, remind employees they can use that time for pro bono and skills-based work.

Define Your Scope

The most effective pro bono projects often happen when a nonprofit organization has a clearly defined need. Common Impact has a Nonprofit Readiness Toolkit for skills-based volunteering that can help you define your scoping questions. Next, the right volunteers can be matched with the project, and the scope and goals can be agreed upon by both the organization and volunteers. Non-disclosure agreements and project contracts can help to ensure both groups are on the same page, as well as mitigate risk.

Collaborate vs. Deliver

Earlier, I used “collaborate” to describe pro bono work between nonprofits and companies, rather than “deploy” or “deliver” private sector expertise to the nonprofit. After I attended the Taproot Foundation’s Pro Bono Summit in April, I learned that the language we use about pro bono work matters. If we “deploy volunteer experts” to nonprofit organizations, it may create the perception of a one-way dialogue— meaning the private sector experts deliver the solutions, and the nonprofit leaders receive them to implement. Instead, pro bono work should be done “with” and not “for” organizations. When private and nonprofit sector leaders can learn from each other by sharing their challenges and collaborating on new social solutions, that’s when the innovative magic of cross-sector pro bono partnerships can happen.

Image credit: Adobe Stock/LIGHTHOUSE STUDIO

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Andrea Bertels

Andrea Bertels is Director of Global Responsibility & Sustainability at Nielsen and Director of Grantmaking at Nielsen Foundation.