02/08/2013 05:03 pm ET Updated Apr 10, 2013

The Business Case for Pro Bono: Psychoanalyzing Capital One's Core Engagement Strategy

Would-be psychotherapist Carolyn Berkowitz helps drive the CSR field from the helm of Capital One Foundation. I met with her recently and had the chance to discuss her own career path and how the business value of pro bono service has made it a core strategy.

I once heard that there are two types of professionals -- 'doctors' who enjoy working directly with patients and 'hospital administrators' who build the systems that doctors need to be effective. Which are you?

I excel at building systems, but I think you need to serve in the role of direct service provider at some point in your career to fully understand how systems work and how to develop them effectively.

I was 100 percent sure growing up that I would be a psychotherapist, but had an "Aha" moment fairly early in my career when I went to work for a professional association that focused on adult literacy. The plan was that I would be getting my psychology degree at the same time. I worked really hard on changing outcomes for adults that either can't read, or read marginally. The organization was really working to address some critical needs, but the experience really opened my eyes to working upstream to fix what I saw as a broken system.

I think it's hard to know which type of professional you are without having some experience as a service provider. What I find, for example, is that when I hire men and women who come out of AmeriCorps, it works well because they are coming upstream from a great training ground, and they understand systemically what needs to change.

When you're hiring at Capital One, what are some examples of the places you feel you're most likely to get the candidates you need?

I learned early in my career that it's absolutely critical to have a team that brings diverse perspectives and backgrounds to the table. Some folks that I've hired come out of nonprofits that focus on our signature issues -- workforce development or financial literacy, for example -- and then I've hired others who have a corporate or corporate grantmaking background. I want people who come out of an environment where they're trying to solve different problems, but can understand the need to improve the context of a company's business by solving local social issues.

Folks with a nonprofit background understand how money is spent and what it takes to fix a problem. They can evaluate when an organization is doing it well or not and can report on those outcomes. Someone coming from a corporate background understands how to translate those things and make it valuable to the business and to earn a return for both the community and the company on our investments.

What caused Capital One to be at the forefront of embracing pro bono service as a strategy for community impact?

It actually arose somewhat organically from within our workforce. Capital One has really strong competencies in branding -- you may have seen one or two of our commercials -- and we have some very talented individuals on our Brand team. Capital One was also built on the notion of value to the customer and the community, and these two core competencies led a group of people -- really independent of a community strategy per se -- to use their branding expertise to deliver what they believed was mission-driving service for customers and community organizations. Since pro bono started in Brand seven years ago, other departments such as Legal, HR, IT, and Finance have since developed their own pro bono teams in partnership with our Community Affairs department. And now those individuals are forming cross-functional teams to be able to more effectively address larger social needs in the community.

For example, last year, a pro bono team of 15 volunteers from across Capital One's IT, Legal, Communications, Supply Chain Management, Business Systems Analysis, and Brand teams partnered with the Virginia Legal community to create a technology solution, called JusticeServer, which matches low-income clients to volunteer attorneys offering pro bono legal services. The new tool came at a critical team for Legal Aid in Central Virginia, which had lost half their staff attorneys, while demand for their services increased by nearly 60 percent. The system the team developed was really innovative and is helping thousands of low-income individuals access critical legal services that could make all the difference in helping them avoid homelessness and keep crucial benefits or jobs.

Ultimately, the pro bono program that was started by our own associates in a very grassroots way was very influential on our overall philosophy and programming, and we created a strategy for identifying the best organizations in the community and layering our resources so that these same organizations were receiving both financial grants and pro bono support. Eventually we even worked on product tie-in so that, once we had created a small group of strong core partners, they really got the full value of our company and saw some transformative results.

Pro bono is a major investment -- what have you experienced that makes you want to continue that might help these other companies decide whether or not to make the investment as well?

I think a lot of companies today are where we were seven years ago, considering the benefits of pro bono. What I have found, both anecdotally and with data, is that what we are most remembered for is never the check. That check is important, sure, but we are always remembered for the quality of our people and the outcomes that an organization is able to achieve in partnership with Capital One because of our associates' pro bono contributions.

So, for companies interested in bolstering their relations in the community, doing what you do best in your business and applying that to the community is the most differentiating thing you can do. No other company does that special thing that you do really, really well. Being able to share that with the community will naturally help you to stand out among competitors.

Equally important, though, is how the associates feel about the work that they are doing and the kinds of skills they are building as a result. We survey our managers, and more than 90 percent of managers said their direct reports improved their leadership skills as a result of participating in a pro bono project.

Pro bono is really a circle -- from the feel-good community outcome, community problem solving, and taking that community context and rolling it back into the business. That's the reason that actually makes it one of our very top strategies.

Capital One has taken the Billion + Change pledge, volunteering its best business skills and talents to serve the needs of nonprofits and communities at home and around the world. Together, Billion + Change pledge companies are inspiring the largest commitment of pro bono and skilled volunteering in history. Has your company taken the pledge? Learn how at