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Social entrepreneur connects nonprofit, corporate sectors

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By Ret Boney

Aaron Hurst, grandson of the man who developed the blueprint for the Peace Corps, is carrying on his grandfather’s passion for social change.

After educating himself in both the nonprofit and for-profit sectors, he started the Taproot Foundation, a group that orchestrates and fosters pro-bono help from corporate executives for nonprofits.

Now Hurst, at age 31, is an Ashoka Fellow, one of the elite few tapped for a worldwide network of social entrepreneurs, people who develop revolutionary ways to address societal problems.

“The amazing thing for me is to be part of a group of fellows around the world,” he says.  “It really is, in my mind, the Nobel prize of social entrepreneurship.”

The fellowship, which covers Hurst’s salary for three years and makes him a member of the Ashoka-fellow family for life, is awarded by Ashoka: Innovators for the Public, an Arlington, Va.-based group that works to advance social entrepreneurism throughout the world.

“One of the things about social entrepreneurism is getting the incentives right and making it truly a win-win for everyone,” says Barbara Kazdan, senior venture entrepreneur at Ashoka.  “We believe Aaron has truly done that.”

Taproot, started in 2001 with Hurst’s credit card, connects skilled corporate executives with nonprofits needing help with marketing and fundraising, information technology and human resources.

                                     Aaron Hurst

Job: President and founder, Taproot Foundation, San Francisco

Education: B.A., community service learning, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor

Born: 1974, Aspen, Colo.

Family: Wife, Kara Hurst, corporate ethics consultant; expecting first child in October

Hobbies: Baseball fan; abstract painting; tennis

Currently reading: “Cool Names for Babies,” by Pamela Redmond Satran

Inspiration: Grandfather, Joseph E. Slater; wife, in her corporate ethics work

Modeled after the pro-bono services practices that have become a core competency of law firms, nonprofits apply for projects that meet their needs, and Taproot matches them with teams of volunteers from the corporate sector who have the appropriate skills.

Taproot then provides the coordination, tracking and translation to make the project successful for everyone involved.

That means results delivered to the nonprofit on time, clear boundaries and a sense of accomplishment for the corporate volunteers, and the breaking down of barriers between the two groups of professionals.

“We’re trying to build a national pro-bono agency,” says Hurst.  “How do you engage the millions of professionals to use their skills to strengthen the capacity of the nonprofit sector?  The only way to address the capacity building need is to use human capital rather than financial capital.”

With 12 employees in its San Francisco and New York offices, three hired within the last month, Taproot to date has managed 243 projects worth an estimated $10 million in time donated by more than 800 business professionals, each of whom is asked to commit five hours a week for six months.

The group is receiving applications from volunteers a the rate of 120 a month, Hurst says, with four in 10 project veterans asking to re-up immediately, and more than nine in 10 saying they’d like to participate again in the future.

“We’re trying to find ways for nonprofit and business professionals to understand each other so that they can address societal issues,” says Hurst.

Funding for Taproot comes primarily from foundations, Hurst says, including the Robin Hood Foundation in New York and the Peninsula Community Foundation in San Mateo, Calif., that sponsor projects for their grant recipients.

Foundations like how their investment is leveraged, Hurst says, with the average project priced at $5,000 but delivering results valued at $40,000.

Hurst, who lives in San Francisco, spent his first two years living in a teepee outside Aspen, Colo., 30 minutes from the nearest road, then lived the life of a “hippie brat”, moving from place to place with his parents and sister.

His “counter-cultural” upbringing was counterbalanced by the influence of his grandfather, Joseph Slater, who developed the plan for the Peace Corps in 1961 and later ran both the Salk Institute, a biomedical research group, and the Aspen Institute, which promotes leadership and open dialogue.

Inspired by his grandfather, Hurst designed his own community-service-learning major at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and created a program in which he and fellow students taught creative writing to inmates of local prisons.

After graduation, he worked for the DePaul Center for Education, documenting best practices in education, and later for the Chicago Education Foundation, a group that provides small grants for teachers, where he came face to face with the capacity constraints nonprofits face.

That experience led him down the path toward Taproot, he says, and as the idea evolved, he realized he needed a better understanding of the business world to make Taproot come alive.

Hurst spent the next five years in the private sector learning the ins and outs of product management, what it takes to effectively run a business, and affirming his belief that corporate executives want to find ways to give back to their communities.

Now he’s planning to open Taproot offices in Chicago and Boston during the next 18 months, and hopes to double the number of projects in San Francisco and New York next year.

He is also two months into the pilot of an earned-income model with Time Warner, where Taproot is creating a program called the Time Warner Pro Bono Consulting Practice that provides opportunities for the corporation’s employees to get involved in volunteering.

Next on his radar are offices in Atlanta, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles and Dallas.

And somewhere between that and welcoming his first child in October, Hurst will try to take a little time off and leverage Ashoka’s network of 1,500 fellows scattered across the globe.

“I can’t wait until my next vacation,” Hurst says.  “My ideal vacation is seeing how other people do what I do in a different context.”

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