Let's just come right out and say it: New York City is the best. At everything. We are the smartest, the hardest working, the most creative, and the best-looking. If you trace every social innovation of the past century back to its roots, you'll find some determined, no-nonsense, big-hearted denizen of the Big Apple looking up from their work with a twinkle in their eye. The settlement house movement? Yo! The community development corporation? Booyah! The artisanal industry incubator? Hoo hoo hoo!
Pro bono service provision to the public sector? Oops, wait.
Chicago's better at it. And it's coming to town.
Sometime last fall I was having breakfast with a friend at Dizzy's (Hi Neil!), and he told me about this cool organization called the Civic Consulting Alliance. I'm always on the lookout for new ideas and interesting programs, and I was intrigued by this group I'd never heard of that was aggregating pro bono supports from the largest corporate partners in Chicago (Bain, Accenture, Allstate, Boeing, McKinsey, Deloitte, Mayer Brown, etc.) and providing them to city government. What's more they weren't just, you know, helping the tourism bureau re-design their logo. They were engaged in some pretty serious stuff. Things like, making over the city's technical college system, re-envisioning mass transit, and building the Mayoral transition plan. But they weren't afraid to mix it up either: they had also streamlined catch basin repair procedures, and helped coordinate automotive fleet maintenance.
This just sounded too cool, and so I asked a friend over at Ford Foundation (hi Mac!) if he might be interested in shipping me out to learn more. Last February I travelled to Chicago for two days of intensive meetings with city officials, corporate partners, funders and nonprofit leaders. I sat in on a Mayoral press event announcing major changes to City and County operations; an expansive multi-sector task force addressing youth violence prevention; and a presentation on improving tourism in Chicago by integrating all five currently existing tourism entities into one.
Heck, I've seen a lot of pro bono initiatives in everything from legal services, to technology, to design, to marketing. They were variously aimed at nonprofits, small businesses, arts organizations, low-income families, etc. All worthy, all meaningful. But I'd never seen anything like this. My little heart just went pitter pat.
What sets Civic Consulting apart isn't just that it serves government's efforts to run the city better and improve services for residents – it's that Civic Consulting is creating engagements of a scale and, well, “thickness” that I've never seen before.
First off, pro bono engagements provided to the public sector aren't required to go through procurement (the very long and arduous process by which city governments award contracts). That right there cuts about 6 months off the time it takes just to get the work started. Civic Consulting instead puts this flexibility to good use by more deeply planning those engagements so they actually start with specific goals and objectives in mind.
What's more, Civic Consulting itself acts as the broker between public and private partners, matching specific needs from motivated agencies to specific capacities within corporate divisions. You see, Civic Consulting has been doing this work long enough that they know the players themselves, so they can operate like a dating service on steroids when it comes to fixing folks up.
But what was most impressive to me was that Civic Consulting would frequently build pro bono engagements with multiple corporate partners. It made sense when I saw it up close: if you're going to reinvent major municipal infrastructure, you're going to need legal, accounting, technology, human resources and business process support. Not only would they have three or four corporate partners around the table trying to evaluate the problem, but after the evaluation they would have another three to four pro bono partners picking up where the others left off to conduct the implementation.
Long story short: I came back to NYC and said, we gotta have this here. Since that time I’ve been preaching to anyone who will listen about the virtues of the model. I’m excited about the momentum the idea has been building. I’ve now met with about a half dozen city agencies, a Deputy Mayor (hi Linda!), and other senior administration officials to kick around potential projects. What’s more, Ford and several other foundations are stepping up to support the effort and introduce it to a wider audience of funders. Best of all, we’re piggy-backing on the already existing corporate relationships built in Chicago to network with their corporate peers here in NYC.
As a matter of fact, one of Civic Consulting’s senior staffers (hi Alexander!) will relocate to NYC to help direct the office here. He’s already personally committed many hours and insights, and become a true partner and colleague. With any luck we’ll actually be conducting engagements by late this year or early next. Hotcha!
All hubris aside, I think we’re tough enough in NYC to admit when we’re getting our butts kicked. By Chicago. Time to steal a page from their playbook.
Photo by yuan2003 via Flickr (CC BY-NC).