Maximizing Your Pro-Bono Contributions

I love the impact of pro bono work—on you and the recipient—but our practices around the process are really sloppy. Here are some ideas about how to achieve more, while also removing some of the frustration that might keep you from doing it at all.

First, An Admission

There’s no real reason why you have to do pro bono work, just honestly. It’s enough to just run a very profitable firm…and give money to the organizations that you believe in. On the other hand, contributing your unique abilities and investing your time—which is a whole lot more precious to you than money—brings a certain satisfaction with it. So let’s assume you’re committed to that and think about some ways to do it better.

Doing Pro Bono Right

Here are eight specific suggestions. These come from my own experience and helping many firms develop their own policies around this.

  1. Full Price or Free. In other words, don’t give a discount. There’s no reason that “pro bono” has to mean free; it can also mean discounted. But there’s this weird dynamic when you charge a lesser amount. Every little weirdness in the engagement is like scattered rain drops at a wedding. If you’re going to get married outdoors, let it be sunny and warm or in a pouring thunderstorm. Halfway just won’t do it, and a discount highlights things gone wrong and builds resentment.
  2. You’re the Giver: Be in Charge. You have certain values and preferences, so articulate and publish them. For extra credit, establish criteria that’s tied to your specialization. If that’s healthcare, build a foundation that can be turned into a promotional opportunity. Some of you are going to turn up your noses at that—“just do it because it’s right and forget the publicity”—but I don’t get the point. But the real reason for setting up public criteria for where you’ll contribute? It makes it easier to say “no” to the many requests you’ll get.
  3. Establish a Decision-Making Board. This doesn’t have to be super formal, but it’s another way to turn someone down without all the heat. “Oh, I love that opportunity. I’m going to pass that along to our board for consideration.” And then you’re done! The board might include a partner, a younger staff member, a community member, and a client. In addition to taking the heat off you, the sole decision maker, it screams how seriously you take this part of your culture.
  4. Use a Process. If an organization needs the help, make them jump some hoops. There shouldn’t be any busy work, but an application process is important. Have a deadline and narrow it down to three or four finalists, and then maybe have a staff vote. Or not, and leave it with the committee to decide. This is one of those scenarios where some “user friction” helps narrow it down to the orgs who really need it.
  5. Set a “Time” Budget. You won’t get a tax benefit for donated labor, but you can put a fence around your contribution by establishing a certain number of hours or people-days that will be donated. Constraints enhance creativity, right? We also don’t want to end up with some monster where we squeeze in every idea that sane clients have rejected over the last 17 years.
  6. Help Should Be Dependent on a Few Things These might include a flexible schedule so that you can fit work into the slower times, the option for you to promote it as you see fit, access to high-level decision-makers on the “client” side, and so on.
  7. Make It an Annual Thing. Look at the typical ebbs and flows of your year, and set some dates. Work far enough in advance that the bulk of the work will hit during the slowest time of year for you.
  8. Band Together. Maybe. I’m not sure that this should always happen, but there are scenarios where it would make sense. Maybe you band together with a video production firm, a printer, a research partner, or an event planner. You could combine your efforts for an even bigger impact, assuming that you can work well together and share the stage.

You’re in a unique position to further the mission of an organization you believe in, and you can accomplish even more, together, if you have a plan. 

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