Pro Bono: An Individual Creating Change
Aaron’s views on service and volunteering have been “radical” since he started his career. In fact, he was among the first group of people who believed the non-profit and for-profit sectors should work together instead of separately. For Aaron, skill and talent are great privileges, and using these skills to volunteer for non-profit organizations is just as important as using them to earn money:
“Pro bono work to me was always something different. It’s not about companies. To me if you think about CSR, pro bono is about ‘professional social responsibility’. If you are lucky enough to have a business education, design education or engineering education, you have a broader responsibility to society. You are so lucky to have these talents, so you must make sure that what you have is not only accessible to those who can pay for it, but also to those who need it most. It’s more about an individual designer, business professional or accountant making sure that you spend some of your time helping those who couldn’t afford your talents because you believe that is necessary for a good society.”
Aaron Hurst was born in the U.S. state of Colorado in the 1970s. This was a time when radical changes were taking place in the country – not just socially and politically, but also in the areas of culture and religion. The 1970s were a time when religions other than Christianity were becoming popular; Buddhism, Transcendental Meditation and other spiritual practices were spreading quickly.
Growing up in this kind of environment, Aaron became what many back then called a “hippie brat;” this was primarily because of his parents, who were devoted followers of Buddhism. Aaron’s father was a provost at a Buddhist university, while his mother was both an astrologist and belly dancer. While Aaron’s parents did their best to ensure that he would become a productive citizen, their beliefs and lifestyle were in many ways clashing with the norms of society, and their jobs were not stable enough to properly support their family.
Inspired by Granddad
During these years, it was Aaron’s grandfather, Joseph Slater, who provided the young Aaron the stability and guidance he needed. It was also Joseph who became Aaron’s greatest inspiration and role model because of the life he lived: working as a high-ranking State Official in the Kennedy administration, Joseph was one of the proponents of the Peace Corps and managed the Aspen Institute for over twenty years. It was he who showed the young Aaron the importance of building connections in the community through trust and understanding, an ideal which contributed greatly to Aaron’s developing attitudes and perspectives.
Even in his younger years, Aaron showed great promise. Not only was he an intelligent student who earned good grades, but he was also charismatic and demonstrated leadership capabilities. In his high school years, Aaron was active in many extra-curricular activities, especially those related to charitable campaigns and programs. Aaron was a promising student with a very bright future.
College Years: The Beginnings of Aaron’s Philanthropy
Aaron enrolled at the University of Michigan; while there, his interest in philanthropy developed further, and during his freshman year he established a learning project to educate prisoners by encouraging his fellow students to go to prisons and teach inmates about creative writing. The project was a success, and within two years, three prisons had already benefitted from the project. Aaron also proposed that the project be integrated into the curriculum, and encouraged professors from the departments of Business, Creative Writing and Psychology to do so. For his accomplishments, Aaron was the very first student to be named “Faculty Member of the Year” by Michigan Campus Contact, the university’s publication.
Early Years In The Non-Profit Sector
Aaron excelled in his studies and eventually earned his degree. With all he had learned in college about non-profit organizations, Aaron went to Chicago and worked with a small foundation that focused on providing grants to teachers in inner-city high schools to help them become better teachers. But, while Aaron enjoyed the work the foundation was doing, he was frustrated with the fact that their actions did very little to spark change in the public educational system.
At the time, non-profit organizations did not receive as much public support as they do today, and were mostly overlooked by the general public. Non-profits also stood away from for-profit institutions and businesses, as they relied solely on traditional methods of generating support. They did not utilize the same methods of promotion/propagation, and thus their development was slower and less productive than that of their counterparts.
Aaron recalled the defining moment which led to his devotion to helping non-profits:
“I think the defining moment was working in the Non-Profit sector and seeing that they loved their mission but many of them were stuck, unable to get to the next level. I saw that I couldn’t work in a sector where I was constantly frustrated with the inability to realize dreams, so I wanted to dedicate my career to fix this.”
Moving To the For-Profit Sector
This was the dilemma Aaron faced while working with the Chicago-based non-profit organization. If non-profits were going to stay non-profit, how would they make a significant impact? Looking for answers, Aaron decided to leave the organization for the for-profit world; he went to Silicon Valley to work for the next five years with two website businesses, where he realized that some of the strategies used by for-profit businesses and organizations are also applicable to non-profit organizations.
Aaron spent his five years in the business sector learning much about the industry and how to get people interested in causes, while remaining passionate about the goal he always had in mind: helping the non-profit sector flourish. Throughout the years, Aaron has learned a great deal about marketing, finance, technology and human resources, and how partnerships between the for-profit and non-profit worlds can benefit both.
Connecting Non-Profit and For-Profit Sectors
With this new idea, Aaron began talking to colleagues and business partners about his work, while at the same time encouraging non-profits to strengthen themselves by analyzing for-profit strategies. Realizing that the two sectors would be stronger and help more people if they worked together, Aaron made it his mission to remove the barriers between the two and encourage both sides to help each other to make the world a better place.
It was also around this time when Aaron saw business schools as a factor in the propagation of “pro bono,” or volunteerism, because of how the schools could help students realize how their skillsets can improve society:
“Business schools are one of the most important players in the propagation of pro bono because it’s the responsibility in civil society for the dean or head of the business school to really ensure that when everyone graduates from business school, they have a clear understanding that they are fortunate to have these skills and that they need to make sure they make them available to those who can’t afford them. Ultimately business schools should be renamed because it’s not really just about business. It’s about how to run an effective organization to enable it to be successful at whatever its mission is.”
Founding the “Taproot Foundation”
Seeing the importance of combining the efforts of the for-profit and non-profit sectors, Aaron discovered a brilliant idea for connecting business professionals with charitable and non-profit organizations. In 2001, Aaron founded the “Taproot Foundation,” a non-profit organization which sought to break the barriers between the two sectors by encouraging young, for-profit professionals to volunteer their skills to non-profit organizations around the United States.
It was not long afterwards when Aaron began to see the fruits of his labor. Within five years, the “Taproot Foundation,” under Aaron’s leadership, became the largest non-profit consulting firm in the United States. Through Aaron’s efforts to build bridges between the for-profit and non-profit sectors, more and more people are beginning to work with non-profit organizations:
“When I started doing Taproot in 2001, most people did not do pro bono. It was considered ‘you get what you pay for’. Then in 2007, about six years after we started, we became the largest Non-Profit consulting firm in the US. By the time I left Taproot, there was probably between $15-20 billion a year in pro bono being done in the US. It’s a major shift and you are starting to see it now at universities, professional associations and companies.”
It was a great leap forward for the non-profit sector, and a tremendous success for the “Taproot Foundation;” but Aaron was not finished yet. While he succeeded in getting the two sectors to work together, Aaron now faced a new challenge: improving relations between the previously-hostile sectors and convincing more professionals to join the cause.
The “Purpose Economy” and “Imperative”
To address this new challenge, Aaron started the “Purpose Economy” campaign and founded “Imperative,” his second non-profit consulting team. Through the “Purpose Economy” campaign, Aaron and his team sought more innovative strategies to encourage the business sector to share its strategies and building methods with the non-profit sector to help address the issues we face today.
Aaron’s success with the “Taproot Foundation” and “Imperative” has brought him international attention and established his reputation as one of the non-profit community’s most significant leaders. Aaron’s effort to promote collaboration between the for-profit and non-profit sectors has earned him fellowships of Ashoka and the Draper Richards Foundation. He was also included on the International Advisory Board of Directors of numerous organizations, including “Reimagining Service,” “BoardSource” and the “CiYuan” project.
Aside from his work with the “Taproot Foundation” and “Imperative,” Aaron has also been busy with other projects and organizations. In fact, Aaron was one of the individuals behind the national “Billion+Change” initiative, as well as the “Service Enterprise” model. Throughout his career, he has been invited to speak at numerous events and conferences, written numerous articles for famous publications such as the Huffington Post and the Non-Profit Times, and written bestselling books including “The Purpose Economy” and “Mommy and Daddy Do It Pro Bono,” which he co-wrote with his wife, Kara Hurst.
The road is long, and there are still obstacles ahead, but Aaron knows he’s ready for them. With the support of family and friends, along with his colleagues at “Imperative,” Aaron is always determined to improve the work of non-profit organizations and keep young professionals interested in volunteering their skills for the good of humanity. There is no better fulfillment than changing the lives of others, and no amount of money can compare to the privilege of making an impact:
“Pro bono is not about volunteering, it is about changing what it means being a professional. Seeing it as a responsibility to help those in need and that you can’t just provide your skills to the ones who can pay for it. The question is not how to improve volunteerism but how do we change the role of professionals in our society.”
Organizations and Programs Supported
- Taproot Foundation
- Reimagining Service
- Alliance for Nonprofit Management
- Billion + Change
- BMW Foundation
- Service Enterprise
- Draper Richard Foundation
Awards and Achievements
- 2006: Named the “Rising Star of the Year” by Fast Company
- 2009: Received the “LSA Humanitarian Service Award”
- 2012: Received the “Social Innovation Spotlight Award” (Taproot Foundation)
- Conferred Fellowship by the Ashoka Foundation
- Conferred Fellowship by the Draper Richards Kaplan Foundation
- Received the “Michigan Campus Compact Award,” the “Manhattan Institute Award for Social Entrepreneurship” and the “Innovation Award from the Social Venture Network”
- Received the “21st Century Award” from the Commonwealth Club
The Huffington Post (Aaron Hurst)
Taproot Foundation (About Pro Bono - Taproot Team)
Imperative (Why were here)
Ashoka United States (Aaron Hurst)
Re-Frame (Aaron Hurst Interview)
CKGSB Knowledge (The Pro Bono Evangelist: An Interview With Aaron Hurst)