Scoping Pro Bono – What Are You Talkin’ Bout?

Editor’s Note: In conjunction with National Pro Bono Celebration, Engaging Volunteers has launched 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. Each week we’re giving away a copy of Powered By Pro Bono with each new blog post on the subject. Got a great tip or story on how to engage pro bono volunteers? Share it below! We’ll send a copy to our favorite entry.

Last week I introduced readers of this blog to the power of pro bono. What if you could access the abundant resources of companies and professionals that want to help you in your work? What if you had highly skilled and motivated help to tackle your biggest marketing, legal, technology and operations challenges?

That’s the promise of pro bono. The challenge for nonprofits is to do pro bono *right* – that is, to reduce risk by properly scoping, securing, managing and scaling the project for success. This week I’m exploring this first element: how to scope a project.

According to Taproot Foundation, the leading experts on engaging pro bono help for nonprofits, properly scoping a project from the outset is an absolute must for seeing any kind of value from the work. Unless a project is well scoped, there’s little chance of it being the right project, that you’ll have the right people involved, or that you’ll meet your deadline. It’s like throwing a dart. Unless you point it in the right direction it’s not likely you’ll hit your target.

But which direction? How do you identify your most important needs? There are two ways.

First, what’s on your to-do list? Most of us have a list of “important” projects that we intuitively think will be helpful for our organizations. (For example, I need to spend some time learning more about building an effective intern program.) These types of projects have surfaced as needs. And they are important.

But… what if there are projects that are even more important? The second type of needs assessment — a strategic approach — looks through the lens of long-term perspective to ask questions like: Where do we need to be? And: What makes sense given our strategic goals? And: Which projects are necessary for us if we want to get there?

A strategic needs assessment answers a lot of questions to get at the fundamental path toward success. An intuitive needs assessment surfaces what you’ve already identified as important. Both approaches will help you see what needs to be done.

Coping with Scoping

Powered By Pro Bono describes four parts of scoping:

  • Scoping – Can you clearly define the work so it can be locked down so its needs don’t change over time?
  • Urgency – Is it urgent? Is there a specific time it needs to be done by?
  • Knowledge Needed – What knowledge about your field, mission, audience will the pro bono team need? Is it worth the time to provide?
  • Team Readiness – Is your team and board open to it being done pro bono? Are they prepared to participate?

The trick to nailing all four is surprising: Pretend you are going to have to pay for this work! Doing this has the magical power to clarify intention and focus.

Personally I get this. In 2008, as social media began to really explode for nonprofits, I was in a new role on the job at VolunteerMatch that required me to own the social media strategy. A team from a local Net Impact chapter approached me with a request: how could they help us? We settled on a pro bono social media strategy project.

The goal was broad: provide VM with ideas for using social media to extend our mission. However, the document we got back was just that… ideas, unconnected to our capacity to do the work or the planned evolution of our product and services. It turned out we didn’t really need a laundry list of ideas. We needed a road map.

Tackling these four criteria of scoping is how to make sure your pro bono need is what you really need.

Scope: Keep It Simple, Stupid

You don’t need a full scope document, just a very basic outline of project scope: what the need is, why it’s needed, and roughly what’s necessary to do it. You don’t need all details for this – that will come later – but essentially, this is a working definition of the project that can be used to share it with your team, board, and potential pro bono partners.

Aside from avoiding “scope creep”, there’s another way you’ll want to keep things simple. That is, many projects are just too big or complex to be feasible. In my case, with the Net Impact consulting team, a full road map would have been too big for their involvement. I should have instead asked for a strategy for engaging just one of our most important audiences…. say, thought leaders and influencers in the nonprofit sector. That would have produced more tangible plans.

Urgency: Caution – Slow Lane Ahead

Even with projects you really need, pro bono is best for situations where you can afford to let schedules go a bit. That’s because pro bono partners still have paying jobs… and schedules always slip.

Powered By Pro Bono describes types of projects that are more likely to succeed: in all cases they are projects that don’t have harsh and scary immediate deadlines. Even relatively small pro bono projects may take 3 to 6 months to get completed. The good news is that well scoped projects will still be critical by then, and your mission will still be important.

Knowledge Needed: Helping Your Pro Bono Partner Up Mission Mountain

If you’ve ever been responsible for training a new staff member at a nonprofit, you know how much time is required to get them even a smidgen of the way to understanding what it is that you do, who you help, and how it all gets paid for.

It turns out that the things nonprofits do is are really complicated. We have complex theories of change, complex tech and human resource systems, and complex relationships with our audiences. Pro bono projects that require the transfer of all this knowledge need to be of critical impact to your organization if you plan to put all that time and effort into getting others up to speed.

On the other hand, projects where you can achieve real benefit that ALSO require very little knowledge transfer are likely to be big wins. Powered By Pro Bono uses the example of involving an outside expert to facilitate an important brainstorming meeting by your board.

Staff Readiness: Do You Really Want It?

Pro bono is hard work, and it’s pretty much guaranteed you’ll hit some road blocks. The final key criteria to effective scoping is whether you really have enough internal support for engaging pro bono help.

This goes beyond support for the idea of pro bono. Often you’ll need other team members (or board members) to actually do some work. Are they ready and willing to jump in when the time is right? If the project isn’t a priority for them, too, it’s not going to work.

To assess staff readiness, you need to know who will have to be involved, will they have time to get involved, and are they motivated to be involved. Phew.

Building Your Pro Bono Team

As the “sponsor” of the pro bono project, your final task in scoping is to take a first stab at staffing the team who’ll be getting the job done. This includes both the internal team (Who has the skills, availability and motivation to take part?), and also the consulting team (What should their specialties be? Should they be local?). You don’t need to know which specific outside team you’ll engage, but you do need to know which *type* of team you’ll likely need to engage.

Powered by Pro Bono has a great overview of defining required roles on your internal team, breaking down the roles played by Day-to-Day Contacts, Decision Makers, Specialists, and Post-Completion Implementation Teams.

When you really look closely at internal staff dynamics through this lens, staffing a pro bono project can produce some surprising dynamics.

For example, although I nominally lead our Communications and Marketing at VolunteerMatch, on many of our pro bono projects there are Decision Makers above me who have to be plugged in at certain times in the project, and also smart “subordinates” who become critical Day-to-Day Contacts on a project because I’m rarely fully available.

In fact, the role I often find myself playing is as “Specialist” who can provide detailed knowledge of our systems and processes, or else as Post-Completion guy who takes the final output and runs with it. So much for “leadership”! Actually, I’m also a big cheer leader for internal support of pro bono… another important (and rarely recognized) role.

Once you have your project defined and vetted against key scoping criteria, and once you’ve identified the pro bono team, put it all into a document that can be shared. You’re ready to take the next step!

This Week: Win A Copy of Powered By Pro Bono

Is your organization Powered By Pro Bono? Do you have pro bono stories or advice to share? Add it to the comments below. Our favorite story each week will win a free copy of Powered By Pro Bono, courtesy of Taproot Foundation.