Advisory Board Co. employees work on a pro bono project with community of Hope, which helps disadvantaged D.C. residents. (Jeffrey MacMillan/For The Washington Post)

Advisory Board Co. chief executive Robert W. Musslewhite issued a lofty philanthropic challenge to his staff at the beginning of 2013: He wanted 100 percent of them to participate in community service, and he wanted their efforts to result in a $1 million benefit to nonprofit groups.

As the Advisory Board closes in on meeting that goal, with about 98 percent of staffers volunteering so far this year, the research and consulting firm says it has received a reward beyond the feel-good vibe of giving back. The company found that its sharpened focus on pro bono work has become an effective tool for attracting and retaining millennial-age workers and for training them to do more advanced work.

“Millennials, more than any other generation, want to make a difference, feel like they have something to do, and want really substantive opportunity,” said Graham McLaughlin, senior director of community impact. “And if they are given that, they will engage hard.”

Although pro bono work was once largely the province of law firms, more and more companies in other sectors are moving to engage with nonprofit groups through such projects, said Michael Stroik, manager of research and analytics at the Committee Encouraging Corporate Philanthropy.

“We feel like it’s this group of young individuals that is driving the growth of a lot of engagement programs, and pro bono is no different,” Stroik said.

In 2008, CECP found that 32 percent of firms were offering pro bono opportunities. By 2012, that number had risen to 50 percent.

Incentives for helping

At Advisory Board, 55 percent of the workforce is 30 or younger.

With such a large share of its workforce from the millennial generation, McLaughlin said the firm is constantly trying to address a key challenge: “How do we ensure that we don’t lose them in a year because some firm has a foosball table and gives out Diet Dr Peppers in the conference room?”

A commitment to pro bono work, the company decided, was one way to achieve that. To make it easier for employees to participate in such projects, Advisory Board offers each staffer 10 hours per month of paid time off to participate in service work.

And the company encourages junior staff members to use pro bono projects as an occasion to learn new skills that might prove to supervisors that they are ready for a promotion.

Senior analysts Ann Forman, 25, and Natalie McGarry, 26, said a recent pro bono project provided a powerful opportunity for them to beef up their résumés and to shine in front of their superiors. The duo worked together on a pro bono project for MedStar Health to study the impact of hospital community benefit programs. What began as a six- to seven-page research paper mushroomed into an 85-slide presentation that the pair delivered before a group of 20 hospital leaders at an event at Intermountain Healthcare in Salt Lake City.

“Presenting in front of a group of members for two hours is a little above our pay grade,” McGarry said. “That was the first time I stood up in front of a room and represented the Advisory Board.”

In fact, McGarry said she would often be working the registration table at similar events. But this time around, attendees at the event’s networking breakfast were seeking her out for conversations.

Forman said they received guidance and support on the project from their supervisors, but ultimately it vested them with a great deal of responsibility.

“We were the senior-most research and insights people in the room, so they turned to us as experts,” Forman said. “So that really forced us to step up and be the experts.”

Forman said the experience helped her view Advisory Board as a place where she is encouraged to advance up the career ladder quickly.

“It has 100 percent renewed my commitment to this company,” Forman said.

Advisory Board has found pro bono work to be linked to high productivity across a variety of demographics. McLaughlin said the company has conducted studies that adjust for age, tenure, gender and other factors, and it has found that staff members who engage in pro bono work are 40 percent more likely to be promoted.

Workplace Darwinism

McLaughlin said Advisory Board aims to be highly deliberate about which organizations it chooses for pro bono projects. One key factor he considers when examining proposals from nonprofit groups is whether the Advisory Board is positioned to help solve the problem at hand. If the project doesn’t play to the company’s areas of focus, the company is not likely to take it on.

The company also seeks projects that it thinks its workers will find engaging and exciting.

“We engage in Darwinism with pro bono,” McLaughlin said. “The nonprofit has to pitch our people on why it’s interesting.”