Engaging Pro Bono Tech: Interview with Jonathan Feinstein, imc²

Jonathan Feinstein, imc2

Our first application for mobile devices, VolunteerMatch for iPhone, is now available in the App Store and at iTunes. For the first time, individuals are able to find and sign up for your VolunteerMatch opportunities on the go.

We’re especially pleased to have produced our latest release with the pro bono contribution of imc², a brand engagement agency. With their help and assistance, VolunteerMatch was able to significantly expand our capacity to perform our mission of strengthening communities by making it easier for good people and good causes to connect.

logo_gelThis week I caught up with Jonathan Feinstein from imc²to talk about the agency’s commitment to Positive Impact as a for-profit, how skilled volunteering fits into its portfolio of social investments, and what the company looks for in a nonprofit partner. imc² is based in Dallas, Texas, with offices in Philadelphia and New York City.

Q: What does imc² do?

Jonathan: Our agency essentially helps brands and marketers build more sustainable relationships with people. That’s why we describe ourselves as a brand engagement agency – it speaks to our purpose, the role we want to play with clients, and the direction we’d like to move the industry. Our roots are digital, but we have a broad range of skills and expertise across platforms. More importantly, we want to be in a position to help marketers think strategically about their relationships with people.

Q: What is the background of imc²’s social impact work?

Jonathan: The story of our social impact work really begins with our founder/CEO Doug Levy and his evolution as a business leader. On one level, he realized that having a philosophical starting point – a clear understanding of our purpose and intention – would give the business an advantage in an industry that is constantly changing. On another level, he started to think differently about what was possible through business – that it’s possible to make a profit and make a positive impact. So, one of our guiding principles became: “Be a force for good.”

I came along in 2007, first to help us get a baseline understanding of what our current impact was. Since then, we’ve developed measurable targets, reporting protocol, and programming around volunteering, giving, as well as environmental impact. One of the programs that we piloted last year was something we call Weekend of Love. It promotes skills-based volunteering by allowing our people to be champions for the nonprofits they are passionate about. With some help from the Taproot Foundation, we created an application, distributed it to our people, and encouraged them to champion a nonprofit to receive pro bono marketing services. From the application, we then get familiar with the marketing needs of the nonprofit, narrow down to a specific project, and then recruit the folks internally to make it happen.

Q: Where did the focus on pro bono/skilled volunteering come from?

Jonathan: I think the process is still unfolding, but we’ve tried to look for ways to engage our own people in volunteer work that is beneficial to them professionally as well as personally. For example, Weekend of Love is a compressed, intense process where we bring nonprofit staff onsite to produce quality work in a limited time frame. While this looked different in our different offices, the experience inspired our team, built chemistry, and created personal relationships with folks on the nonprofit side.

On another level, skills-based volunteering adds insight into the paid work we do for clients in the private sector and opens up some really exciting opportunities for partnerships down the road between these organizations and for-profits.

Q: What kinds of work does the company do pro bono? How does it vary from fee-based work?

Jonathan: I wouldn’t say that the work necessarily differs at all. One thing that hopefully VolunteerMatch discovered is that our people embrace pro bono work with the same passion, commitment, and professionalism as they do with paid client work. We certainly don’t approach it with reduced expectations. In fact, given the time constraints, the pro bono work sometimes pushes us to find creative solutions that provide even more value.

Q: What has been the impact to the company culture and recruiting as a result of the social impact programs?

Jonathan: It has been a difficult economy the last few years. We’ve experienced the same kinds of challenges and difficult choices as other companies. Despite the downturn, though, overall employee satisfaction is on its way up. And one question in particular that has had a good response on employee satisfaction surveys has to do with Positive Impact initiatives providing worthwhile opportunities to be a force for good.

Q: What kinds of pro bono partnerships does imc² look for?

Jonathan: Organizations that are innovative and tech-savvy are typically good matches for our talent. Just as important can be an organization’s willingness to engage around its larger purpose and commitment to communicate authentically. Regardless, we want to partner with organizations on a level where the work we create is going to live on – that’s really important for our volunteers and often determines the impact of the work.

Q: How did the company select VolunteerMatch as a possible partner?

Jonathan: We had recently developed a branded iPhone app for Pizza Hut that received a lot of well-deserved media attention. I was thinking about how we could really use our professional talent and expertise to make a difference for the volunteer movement more broadly. I was aware of VolunteerMatch, and I knew you were the go-to database for volunteer opportunities across the country. I thought, “What if we worked with VolunteerMatch to provide opportunities to people on the go?”

While I was on VolunteerMatch.org one day, I sent a customer service email and Torrey Lippincott (VolunteerMatch’s Director of Product Development) responded. And because you were able to intake that idea and put it into the right channels, it was a relatively smooth process.

Q: Once the engagement began, what things did VolunteerMatch do to make it easier or harder for imc² to support the project?

Jonathan: Frankly, if there wasn’t as much tech savvy on VolunteerMatch’s side, the project probably wouldn’t have worked. On top of that, the VolunteerMatch team was open-minded, able to take feedback and push back from us. Our software engineer on the project, Vincent Guerin, said flat-out, “I’d work with them any day.”

Both of those qualities make such a difference. For example, during the Weekend of Love, we worked with another nonprofit, The Jesse Tree, a regional organization in Galveston, Texas. They don’t have a big paid staff, but they know what they need and they’ve recruited skilled volunteers – people who can actively support the management of the organization.

Even just getting a Web redesign done can be a massive undertaking for small nonprofits. But there’s a way to prioritize and really pursue important pro bono projects. Start with individuals within your existing volunteer network – or expand that network if you need to – and identify who can lend their professional skills to your organization. Corporations and many individuals want to work on projects that can be sustained and maintained for the long term.

Q: Do you have any advice for other creative agencies that are considering taking a stronger approach to pro bono as part of their social impact work?

Jonathan: We’re still very much in the beginning stages, but one thing I’ve seen is that the true volunteer spirit of our pro bono work is directly related to how rewarding and impactful the work is at the end of the day. It’s just a question of patience and persistence.