Becoming “Powered by Pro Bono”

Editor’s Note: In conjunction with National Pro Bono Celebration this week, Engaging Volunteers is launching a 5-part exploration of best practices in pro bono volunteer engagement through the lens of the experts at Taproot Foundation. Our friends at Taproot have just released a new book, Powered by Pro Bono, to give nonprofit leaders guidance on creating successful pro bono engagements. Starting next week we’ll give away a copy of Powered By Pro Bono with each new blog post on the subject.

Powered by Pro BonoFifteen years ago VolunteerMatch helped launch a new era in volunteer engagement based on the idea that it should be easier to find a great place to volunteer (or a great volunteer). Ten years ago we pioneered the notion that it should be easier for companies to manage and deploy great community-based volunteer programs (and it should be easier for nonprofits to participate).

Today the volunteering landscape continues to evolve, and one of the most exciting new directions is the growing interest in engaging pro bono help for your organization.

Pro bono comes from “pro bono publico” – literally, “for public good” – and most people define it as companies or individuals donating their professional skills to benefit a nonprofit organization. In the past primarily limited to getting legal or advertising help, pro bono today means services in accounting, marketing, logistics, human resources, technology development and more.

More than $15 billion in pro bono service is exchanged each year, about one-twentieth of the total value of cash gifts annually. But the number is growing. And, more importantly, a recent survey by Deloitte of nonprofits reported that 62% of organizations reported that they needed more pro bono help, compared to 28% who sought more traditional volunteering support. In most cases, nonprofits recognize that the path toward transformational change must include support from highly-skilled volunteers who love what they do for a living and want to contribute it toward the greater good.

But how can nonprofits best engage pro bono support? How can we align our needs with what pro bono volunteers offer? How can we accomplish all of our every day work while making room for capacity building projects? How can we increase the odds that our next pro bono engagement will be successful?

New Release: Powered by Pro Bono

For most nonprofits, the rainbow possibilities of pro bono are strongly colored by the risk of failure. And yet getting better at pro bono is increasingly something most organizations can no longer afford to miss out on.

This fall Taproot Foundation has released a new guide for nonprofits, Powered by Pro Bono, with plans and resources to help nonprofits be great pro bono partners.

Taproot, more than any other capacity building organization in the U.S., has been instrumental in raising awareness about the benefits of pro bono at nonprofits and creating programs to bring corporate resources and teams across the nonprofit divide. Best known for their Service Grant program which has matched individual professionals with projects at more than 1,500 nonprofits, Taproot has also been instrumental in helping many of today’s most successful companies create more impactful pro bono programs.

All the experience has taught Taproot that great pro bono doesn’t just happen — it must be developed intentionally, realistically and with patience. Organizations can succeed in pro bono by following five key principles:

  • Knowing and defining your needs – Engaging a pro bono team or consultant should come only after your organization has identified a key strategic need.
  • Getting the right resource for the right job – A great pro bono match aligns skills, scope, process and people — not just supply and demand.
  • Being realistic about pro bono deadlines – Because critical paying client needs nearly always trump pro bono needs at companies, nonprofits need to plan for schedule changes.
  • Acting like a paying client – This means treating communication, iteration and scheduling as if you had real dollars on the line.
  • Ensuring that learning goes both ways – In most cases pro bono teams rely on the nonprofit for the domain knowledge and mission-based expertise that is required for a successful engagement.

This Month: Let’s Explore Ways to Make Pro Bono Work!

Over the next month I’ll be exploring the book’s four sections — Scoping, Securing, Managing and Scaling — here at Engaging Volunteers. Beginning next week I’ll tackle a different theme each week, and I’ll engage YOU, the reader, to share your stories around pro bono. For those who share their thoughts, one of you will receive a free copy of the book each week.

To kick things off, I thought I’d share some of my own pro bono thoughts!

In my own experience as a communications executive at a nonprofit, pro bono has been a mixed bag. Because of our innovative mission, awareness of our brand, and our many programs in the corporate world, VolunteerMatch is fortunate to meet lots of folks who want to help out on a pro bono basis.

Over the years, I’ve worked alongside pro bono teams on design marathons, on long-term branding projects, in technology development projects, and on strategic plans. Some projects have been wildly successful. Others have fizzled. And I haven’t always been clear on what led to these different outcomes.

Because of this uncertainty, I’m often a bit hesitant at the outset of pro bono projects. They ALL seem risky.

In this I know I’m not alone. As the introduction to Powered by Pro Bono puts it: “Depending on your experience, it might seem as though we are painting a pretty rosy picture… If you’ve had a bad experience, using pro bono services can seem like a risky investment of time and energy, a potential diversion of your limited resources, rather than support for them.”

But I also know that realizing the vision I have for my group at VolunteerMatch will depend on bringing in smart professionals who are interested in supporting my work and, ultimately, the mission of my organization. That’s why I’m excited to dig into Powered by Pro Bono. Join me!

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3 thoughts on “Becoming “Powered by Pro Bono”

  1. The problems I have incurred using professional volunteers in the past have been my own doing. My thinking was “they are the experts. I will have them lead.” This doesn’t work. I believe that you have to have a vision and clear expectations when you start a project. You need to communicate that vision and those expectations; sometimes repeatedly. If down the line the professionals say…”I think we should do this” or “this might be better,” I can then regroup and make a new decision. If you are not clear from the onset you will not end up with the results you wanted or possibily no results at all because you were meandering and going in different directions dependent on who you were following.

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