What Does it Mean to Engage Tech Talent in Pro Bono?

Feb 3, 2016 2:00 PM ET

It’s a hot topic in the Bay Area, and it feels like you can hardly cross the street without hearing about a tech company launching their 'For Good’ efforts. This is certainly an inspiring trend to watch happen - and for many, also leads to lots of questions. Who at these companies are doing ‘for good’ work and quite importantly, for whom?

So we here on Taproot’s Bay Area Advisory Services team decided to address a handful of the questions we’ve been hearing bubble up around pro bono volunteerism in the tech industry head on. By way of background, the Advisory Services team at Taproot has worked with over 60 Fortune 500 and other companies to create customized pro bono programs, and we’ve been working since Advisory Services launched in 2008 to strategically guide the field of corporate pro bono forward.

During Pro Bono Week 2015, our team hosted a pop-up discussion with about 40 folks from both for-profit and nonprofit organizations in order to begin addressing what engaging ‘tech talent’ really means for the nonprofit sector.


Key Discussion Point #1:

What can tech employees do for my nonprofit?

Short answer: A whole heck of a lot. Tech companies solve a large variety of business challenges all day, every day. It will serve all of us in the social sector to better understand the talent pools of tech companies so that we can call on the appropriate pro bono help!

Longer answer: Here are more specifics about what we learned about tech companies and their talent during our pop-up discussion: the types of problems tech employees are trying to solve are very broad, and hopefully then, also broadly applicable. For example, Dropbox recently hired a web accessibility engineer who focuses on improving the accessibility of their platform for all users, including the visually impaired. Her role is didactic, instructing employees internally about accessibility, and also building out new product features like voiceovers and font contracts. What a cool job, and just imagine how we could use her accessibility skills at our nonprofits!

To bring an insider’s view to the discussion, Joe Wheeler, who runs Dropbox’s corporate social responsibility, explained the broad structure of the company to our group. Joe explained that his company is structured broadly into 2 groups: EPD (engineering, product, design) and business. Within each of those 2 groups, there are many diverse types of roles. In hearing his explanation, participants were able to better understand the type of talent at Dropbox, and ideally better utilize those specific skills in pro bono.

Here are a few key points for nonprofit partners to keep in mind in order to better understand how to tap into tech talent:

  • Build your understanding of what ‘tech talent’ means. In our session, we talked about how it can refer to skills sets within engineering, product, design and business. Within each of these groups, there are many diverse types of roles. For example, product manager, designer, technical sales “solutions architect”, and many different flavors of engineers and developers.

    What these individuals do depends on the team they work on. For example, and IOs or Android developer might work on a mobile interface, a data security engineer might work on ensuring that data is protected, and a ‘UI’ or ‘user interface’ engineer might work on making tech products as easy and intuitive to use as possible. The thing to keep in mind here is that the types of problems they’re trying to solve are very broad, and likely applicable to some aspect of nonprofit operations.

  • Think critically about what tech challenges you face as a nonprofit. Are they to do with storing or sharing your data, updating your website, engaging new supporters online, etc.? Once you understand the problems you are facing, you can work towards finding a partner to help you craft solutions.

It will go a long way for all of us in the nonprofit world to understand more about the specific roles and skill sets within tech companies. Similarly, once companies better understand the unique context and technical challenges faced by nonprofits, the better volunteers can not only fill holes, but build bridges. If you’re a tech employee and are still not convinced your skills are needed by nonprofit partners, we encourage you to:

  • Problem solve your own talent. This sounds strange, but tech employees are known for solving messy, complex problems. Approach how your skillsets can translate to a nonprofit as a puzzle to solve. Think creatively and broadly when imagining how you or colleagues could translate your skills. Don’t get stuck in your job title (engineer, developer), but look at the types of problems or projects you work on every day. Likely there is a similar problem or project among a nonprofit partner.

Once we build deeper understandings of critical nonprofit needs and what constitutes tech talent, we can make smarter asks and uses of these skills.


Key Discussion Point #2:

What technology resources should I be investing in my nonprofit?

Short answer: Technology should have a place in your strategic planning and in your budget. In order to keep up with marketing and fundraising demands of today’s fast-paced and online world, you will want to think critically about your website(s), mobile accessibility, fundraising capabilities, etc.

Longer answer: There are four key points we talked about in our discussion that relate to the investment nonprofits can be making in technology to get and stay ahead.

What does an investment in technology mean for a nonprofit?

  • Build buy-in among leadership so that they understand and support your investment in technology and/or technology focused pro bono.
  • Assess your technology needs, in terms of products, services and personnel so that you have a strong baseline understanding of what support and investment you need to keep pace with our online world.
  • Incorporate technology resources into you strategy and budget so that appropriate resources are allocated.
  • Train your staff on internal technologies to build your in-house tech competencies.

We understand that these types of investments take time, dedicated thought and personnel. The thing to keep in mind here is that there are highly skilled volunteers at all tech companies, many of who are excited to lend a hand for a good cause. You can bring volunteers in at any stage of the investment cycle - even right away to help you think through, design and set up the technology investments you are committed to making.

We hope that by encouraging dialogue between tech companies, intermediaries like Taproot and nonprofit organizations, we can start working together to address the nonprofit technology gap. We encourage you to engage in this discussion, ask questions of your organization and connect with others who are doing the same. We’re excited to see the pro bono volunteerism wave continue to swell amongst local tech companies – and as they do, to start seeing pro bono become a real trend across the technology industry at large.

Kendra Ott
Taproot Foundation