Taproot taps expertise

By Todd Cohen

The San Francisco-based Institute for Fisheries Resources wanted to revamp its web site to better market itself.

But lacking the funds and expertise to undertake a Web project, the research, education and advocacy group turned to the San Francisco-based Taproot Foundation, which assembles teams of business volunteers and assigns them to nonprofits needing technology and marketing support.

With a “service grant” and guidance from Taproot, a volunteer team rebuilt the institute’s web site, which has seen its monthly visits grow to 2,000 from 125 before the redesign.

“Taproot allowed us to expand our web site in a way that we would have never been able to do alone,” says Natasha Benjamin, program manager.

Taproot is the brainchild of Aaron Hurst, a nonprofit entrepreneur who likens the organization to a “domestic Peace Corps for the business community.”

Based on his grandfather’s work in helping to create the Peace Corps and on his own experience creating a service-learning major in college, training Peace Corps alumni to teach in inner-city Chicago schools and working for several San Francisco tech firms, Hurst created Taproot to connect business volunteers with nonprofits wanting to strengthen their internal operations.

The idea is to create a “turn-key” model of service that moves beyond volunteerism that matches individual volunteers with individual nonprofits, he says.

Taproot assembles highly organized teams of skilled business professionals, plugs them into selected nonprofits and equips them with tools to create marketing and technology products tailored to the nonprofits’ specific needs.

“The end result is the quality of work that a nonprofit would get paying for these services from a large marketing or technology company,” Hurst says.

Before launching the organization, Hurst interviewed nonprofit executives and identified some common needs for technology and marketing, including Web sites, program databases, brochures and branding.

He then asked business colleagues to help him develop a scalable model for marshaling business volunteers to create products to meet those needs.

That model includes templates for putting together a project team, including clearly defined roles, and for creating a project plan, including timetables, technical requirements, creative development, production and nonprofit staff training.

A Web-site team, for example, consists of a marketing manager to define the site’s marketing needs; a designer to develop its graphical look and feel; a developer to write code; a copywriter to prepare text; and a team manager to oversee the project.

Taproot manages each project and guarantees completion and satisfaction, Hurst says.

Backed with $300,000 over three years from the San Francisco-based Draper Richards Foundation, a venture philanthropy that provides “seed” funding and consulting to innovative nonprofit startups, Taproot in 2002 assigned 120 volunteers to support 18 service grants with a total market value of $500,000, Hurst says.

This year, it will assign 250 volunteers to support 50 grants worth $2 million, he says, and is expanding to New York City with three pilot service grants.

Hurst’s goal is to serve seven cities within five years, teaming up with local foundations to sponsor projects for their grantees.

After New York, he says, likely sites are Chicago and Los Angeles, and possibly Miami, Seattle and Toronto.

With an annual budget of $120,000 per city, he says, Taproot can deliver $2 million to $4 million in services to local nonprofits.

Hurst says he has been talking to San Jose-based Cisco Systems about tapping its employees’ skills to “build the capacity of nonprofits and help the Taproot Foundation expand this model nationally.”

And while Taproot initially has focused on technology and marketing support, Hurst says, it also aims to put other types of business expertise to work for nonprofits.

This fall, for example, Taproot hopes to bring together human resources and legal professionals to develop a human resources project, such as a personnel policy.

Jenny Shilling, executive director or the Draper Richards Foundation, says Taproot’s model is highly efficient and changes the nature of volunteerism.

“They pick the best volunteers, people who do this for a living for the best companies, and put them on teams to harness all those skills to deliver complete projects to nonprofits who otherwise would not be able to have those projects,” she says.

The process is efficient, she says, because Taproot assembles the expert teams, selects nonprofits prepared to work with volunteers and guarantees completion of the project.

“It’s very time-consuming for a nonprofit to try to find the correct volunteers and put them together in a team and manage them,” she says. “Taproot takes a lot of burden off the nonprofit.”

Shilling, who provides consulting and support to Hurst and other recipients of Draper Richards grants, says Taproot simply helps nonprofits do their job better.

“If you treat a nonprofit with the same professionalism that you would treat a for-profit client, everybody wins,” she says. “The volunteers are satisfied because they’re producing a great service for the nonprofit. And the nonprofit is satisfied because they have received a very valuable Web site, database or brochure.”

Benjamin of the Institute for Fisheries Resources says Taproot provided it with a focus it lacked.

“We spend our time working on projects, and we don’t have the time or the resources to develop marketing strategies,” she says. “Taproot gave us guidance and tools that we now can continue to use, in the form of the Web site, to think about marketing strategies.”

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