Top 3 Things I Learned About Pro Bono from the First Twitter Talk Tuesday

This post also appears on Volunteering is CSR.

Tweet, Twitter, Bird, Blue, Twig, Branch, Green, HillsOn Tuesday, November 19, my team and I rounded up with coffee in our hands and entered the Twittersphere to begin our first Twitter Talk Tuesday. As an intern at VolunteerMatch I was able to be an integral part of the project. Our first topic was pro bono and skilled volunteering.

To be honest, I am not an expert in this field and I was a little intimidated to be a participating member of Twitter Talk Tuesday. Here are some of the things I learned throughout the hour-long chat:

Setting the foundation of a pro bono project

We started the chat off talking about how the initial conversation between a nonprofit and a company can be complicated concerning pro bono projects. Many of the responses we received said that both parties need to be clear on what the goal is, how to efficiently reach that goal and provide guidelines for how they will work together. Some even provided links with resources to additional help.

Mutually beneficial pro bono relationships

Later in the Twitter chat we discussed who benefits from a pro bono project more: a nonprofit, volunteers, or the corporation. When I was first thinking about this subject I had immediately come to the conclusion that it was a win-win-win situation. However, some of our participants shed light on a few problems involved. I learned that yes, ideally pro bono projects should benefit all parties, but sometimes the needs of the company can overpower the needs of the organization.

On the other hand, those that successfully create a pro bono project allow for nonprofits to get what they need without having to pay for it, employees get to utilize and even sharpen their skills, and corporations increase their impact for good.

Planning a pro bono project

We also discussed how organizations can plan for pro bono projects. An important realization is that there isn’t one right process; each project is unique to the particular needs of the nonprofit and company involved. The planning team must be flexible and be willing to put in the hard work that goes into pro bono projects. In addition to this, it is equally important to know what kind of skills the community and the corporate employees have to offer.

There are a lot of different aspects that go into these projects, but the outcome is definitely worth it. A running theme throughout our Twitter chat was that these projects are unique and must be treated as such. There must be plenty of flexibility, research, communication and cooperation in order to have a successful outcome.

Overall, the first Twitter Talk Tuesday was incredibly helpful and gave me some insight as to how nonprofits and corporations come together for a pro bono project to help out those in need.

Be on the look out for our next Twitter Talk Tuesday! Keep the conversation going about pro bono volunteering using the hashtag #vmtalk. Tweet you soon!

Pro Bono at Conferences: Reflections of an Expert After Nonprofit Boot Camp

Public relations pro Jennifer Kern hangs out at the VolunteerMatch booth during Nonprofit Boot Camp, 6/12/13, in Silicon Valley.

I go to a lot of conferences and so I know it’s not always easy to get the help I’m looking for when I’m there.

For example, I may not know anyone else at an event — putting the onus on me to reach out and network just to feel a human connection.

If I attend a panel or a  workshop it might have interesting content, but the speakers don’t have the time or flexibility to make it especially relevant for my needs.

And, let’s be honest, sometimes it’s just hard to feel at home in a big room full of strangers.

Last week the much-loved – and much-missed – Nonprofit Boot Camp series returned for the first time in three years. As part of the program, VolunteerMatch teamed up with the Silicon Valley chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals to coordinate a series of one-on-one “Ask The Expert” consultations taking place throughout the day.

Attendees could sit for 30 minutes at a time with one of 25 experts in volunteer engagement, marketing, finance, fundraising, technology and other areas of nonprofit management. Cool, right?

I jumped at the opportunity — not only to put VolunteerMatch’s muscle behind helping the sessions be a success, but also to volunteer as an expert myself. What better way to help attendees have a terrific experience and while also putting our money where our mouth is about the value of pro bono service?

What Constitutes Pro Bono at a Conference?

These days most conferences can’t afford fees for panelists, moderators and often even keynote speakers. So in essence many of the thought leaders who appear on the program at our favorite conferences are working “for free.” But there’s usually an unspoken quid pro quo: Come talk about what you do and think, and we’ll promote you as a superstar in your field.

But volunteering as an expert in a one-on-one session setting is different. Like so much pro bono service, it involves a lot of listening. You tailor your deliverables to a specific organization. And you accept the fact that success in the engagement will be defined as much by the attendee’s involvement as by your own.

That means there’s some risk involved – it’s a collaboration. Even so, there are tons of reasons why offering free expert one-on-one consulting makes sense for pretty much any conference:

  • For attendees, getting free one-on-one consulting allows you to get custom help, create a relationship with an expert in the field, and come away from the event feeling like you got deep-dive support on the issues you face on the job.
  • For experts, volunteering with one-on-one consulting at an event is a great way to demonstrate a deep commitment to advancing the field, exercise your listening and presentation skills, potentially develop new business leads, and meet other leading consultants and practitioners.
  • For conference producers, adding a free one-on-one consulting element to your events is a terrific way to add an element of diversity and depth to the content program, widen the network of experts who are likely to help promote your event beforehand, and facilitate authentic relationship building.

Talk about win-win-win. PR guy Dan Cohen, principal of Full Court Press Communications and one of last week’s volunteer consultants, said it best from an expert’s perspective:

“Aside from the consultations, there was amazing networking among my peers.  While our firm has some very good tools in our toolbox, the expert tables were packed with a complete set of solutions provided by folks who think like we do.  We’ve already included one of the peer firms in a proposal.”

My own experience at Boot Camp was also great.The four or five folks I consulted with presented different challenges. One consultee was struggling to inspire volunteers to her wild cat conservation organization, who seemed to all want to get out in the field and count cougars even though most of the need was in the office. Another woman I met with managed volunteers for a retail store that sold second-hand items to benefit a nonprofit. How could they build a cadre of happy volunteer cashiers?

I felt this last consultation went well, but when I got an email from her the next day I knew for sure: “Your input on our volunteer program…was incredibly valuable,” she wrote.

Equally important, I was able to spend my breaks networking and making new friends with dozens of other experts, all of whom have tremendous knowledge and big hearts to share.

Hats off to all the amazingly talented folks who volunteered their time as experts at Nonprofit Boot Camp last week:

  • Hallie Baron, Hallie Baron Consulting LLC
  • Leyna Bernstein, Leyna Bernstein Consulting
  • Dan Cohen, Full Court Press Communications
  • Stephanie Demos, Alum Rock Counseling Center
  • Eric Facas, Media Cause
  • Jennifer Kern, PR & Company
  • Karen Kwan, Community School of Music and Arts
  • Jessica LaBarbera, Nonprofit Finance Fund
  • Beverly Lenihan, Reesults Consulting
  • David Livingston Styers, Center for Volunteer and Nonprofit Leadership
  • Sara Morency, Sara Morency Coaching & Consulting
  • Suzanne Oehler, Yapper Girl
  • Aaron Pava, CivicActions
  • Anna Quinones, Independent Consultant
  • David Russo, American Cancer Society
  • Carla Schlemminger, Socialbrite
  • Adam Straus, Straus Events
  • Sharon Svensson, Essex & Drake Fund Raising Counsel
  • Alisa Tantraphol, Second Harvest Food Bank
  • Connie Wang, LinkedIn

What do you think? Share your thoughts and experiences about pro bono consulting at conferences and events below.

Scaling Pro Bono – Evolving Your Nonprofit for High Impact

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.

The title of Powered by Pro Bono is no joke: its authors at the Taproot Foundation really are encouraging nonprofit readers to imagine a new future for their organizations — one where they have the capacity to tap into a wellspring of skilled professional services as needs evolve. And not just for the occasional pro bono project either, but for a wide variety of engagements across all functions as needs arise.

In this, my last post in this series, I’ll review this final audacious challenge from Powered By Pro Bono. It’s an all-encompassing vision, one that replaces recognition of financial support as central to your organization with the recognition that pro bono support is just as crucial. Is your organization ready to go there? Most are not, but Powered By Pro Bono argues that within 2-3 years of focused intention and hard work, it’s likely you could be.

The vision of an organization that is truly powered by pro bono assumes not only a deep and enduring interest in your mission by today’s skilled professionals, but also a commitment to truly “scaling” both the role of pro bono at your organization, and also your organization’s social impact.

“Scaling” is what happens when an organization truly makes scopingsecuring and managing pro bono projects part of its DNA – it’s the final stage in development of the pro bono organization.

The Four Stages of Pro Bono Development

To understand the promise and challenges of scaling pro bono, we need to know what it means. Taproot Foundation identifies the following growth path for organizations that practice pro bono:

  • Level One (Beginner) — The nonprofit has tried a project or two with mixed success, but doesn’t yet really understand the best practices in pro bono engagement. The big opportunity here is to get some training and learn how the parts of pro bono come together.
  • Level Two (Practicing Pro Bono) – Pro bono is underway in various projects, but it’s often confined to one department… the one with the team that “gets it” (often in communications or HR, owing to the nature of their work and orientation). But in this phase a cultural shift is already underway, especially because you now have internal champions with experience in pro bono. But growth still needs to happen in the form of a vision for where all this pro bono is going and a more proactive approach to forecasting pro bono activities that should take place 6-12 months down the road.
  • Level Three (Organization-Wide Adoption) – Pro bono begins to be adopted throughout the organization, with the early team members now assuming roles of mentors. The organization is now investing in systems to track, manage and recognize pro bono support. The big opportunity now is to articulate a vision of what becoming “powered by pro bono” can do to unify the team further, improve ties with your board, and help you recruit or develop staff members who can help take things to the next level.
  • Level Four (Powered by Pro Bono) – Your organization can engage pro bono across most or all of its functions, you know how to maximize those engagements, and you are comfortable with the most complex of pro bono formats.

In each of these phases there are opportunities to continue to define how you use pro bono and to grow as a team. I’ll spend the rest of this article exploring some of the tools and considerations that can come up on your path.

The Power of Internal Trainers and Mentors

You’ve heard the word “intrapreneur”? That’s when an employee creates a program or starts an activity without necessarily being required to do so. At most nonprofits, pro bono begins through the work of an intrapreneur who is willing to try a new approach to getting work done.

Through these stages of development, it’s clear that individuals who are on staff can serve as critical drivers of cultural change at nonprofits. It’s often a single staff person who first is inspired to try pro bono, who creates that first relationship, and who wants to share the outcomes and experience with others. This also applies to teams, groups of people at your organization that become fired up about the potential.

Eventually, these are the folks who lead the organization’s efforts around pro bono and provide real mentorship on the topic.

Who on your staff is inspired by pro bono today? What can your organization do to help them succeed in creating cultural change? Here are some ideas:

  • Listen to what they are saying.
  • Get them training around pro bono best practices.
  • Help celebrate, reward and recognize their achievements.
  • Encourage them to mentor the rest of the organization in ways that make sense.
  • Ask for their help in forecasting future pro bono needs.

The Power of Forecasting

I’ve already covered how to identify current pro bono needs and secure currently available pro bono resources.  For pro bono beginners, these are ways for an organization to “near-cast” its pro bono needs. But as nonprofits get more sophisticated with pro bono engagement they’ll want to take a longer view… one that fits more neatly in the year-long budget and program planning framework that governs so much of the organization’s life: forecasting.

Forecasting pro bono allows an organization to plan for pro bono projects in a longer timeline that takes into account the team’s capacity to manage pro bono as well as the availability of willing pro bono resources.

So, for example, if you know in December that you’ll need a new mini website for a community safety program in Q3 of the following year, you can decide now if it’s the right kind of project for pro bono, and even begin talking with your existing pro bono partners about whether it’s the kind of project they’d like to take on.

Powered By Pro Bono suggests you organize forecast pro bono projects into four buckets of priority each single quarter: open “to-do” list items, urgent items, short-term priority items, and long-term priority items. They can all be met with different forms of pro bono and launched in accordance to different lead times.

The Power of Systems

Most organizations have donor management systems. Some have volunteer management systems. Far fewer have pro bono management systems. But as an organization evolves into one that can scale its mission via pro bono, having core systems in place to sustain and grow pro bono support is essential.

For me, the surprise of Powered By Pro Bono is the suggestion that these systems go beyond a simple database of pro bono projects and key contacts. For example, a well designed pro bono engagement management database should also include fields for lessons learned during the project.

Here are some other systems that Taproot Foundation recommends nonprofits create on their way to becoming powered by pro bono:

  • Standardized staff training – As pro bono becomes a deeper part of a nonprofit’s culture, it becomes more and more important to get the whole team on board, especially when they first come to work for you.
  • Standardized recognition process – Recognition activities that work to connect volunteers to the meaning and impact of their work should be shared across the organization. Here’s a link to our articles on volunteer recognition.
  • Reusable evaluation tools – Evaluation and debriefing of projects following completion are some of the few tools you’ll have to improve your pro bono process from project to project. Creating systems that allow for teams to do so with a consistent framework that is custom designed for the organization is important for this.
  • Track and value pro bono efforts – What is the comparable monetary value of the project? How will you share that in your annual report or list of key contributors? The more consistent you can make this process, the more likely it is to be useful. Even if your pro bono consultant(s) haven’t been tracking their time, you can still use typical industry rates to assign a dollar value to the great work that they’ve done.

These systems are not necessarily expensive, and they can help your organization process each project as part of a connected whole – which is the best way to improve your pro bono engagement over time.

The Power of Partnerships

As your organization evolves into one that is comfortable with pro bono, it’s likely that you’ll grow tired of recruiting a new consultant or consulting group with every engagement. In fact, it makes a lot of sense to continue to work with the same consultant(s) as much as possible. As their experience with your mission and team deepens, so will the work. Not only that, the relationship is more likely to lead to other forms of commitment or support, including in-kind and cash.

Powered By Pro Bono recommends that organizations consider having the “talk” with pro bono partners who have already worked out well.

That is, when you like what you’ve found, don’t be afraid to address head on the idea of a long-term partnership together. By directly addressing what both groups truly desire — a deep and committed relationship built on purpose, meaning and collaboration —  you’ll be able to meet each other’s needs even as those needs evolve over time.

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.

Managing Pro Bono – How to Make Sure Your Unpaid Consulting Project Produces Amazing Results

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.

According to recent studies, there are literally millions of professionals, consultants and companies who would like to contribute their skills to your mission. And, in fact, more than $15 billion worth of skilled labor does get contributed each year. So there’s a lot at stake for nonprofits who can harness these resources.

Over the last few weeks I used this space to share best practices on scoping pro bono projects (how to figure out what you really need) and securing pro bono resources (how to approach the right people for your project). This week I’m looking closely at how to manage the projects themselves so they produce great results.

Principles of Great Pro Bono Project Management

In my last article in this series, I shared that there are 6 popular models of pro bono. Some pro bono projects are more complex and challenging than others. Team-based projects, for example, are often made up of pro bono consultants from different organizations who have never worked together before but who must be harnessed to work toward a shared goal for the benefit of a nonprofit. That’s hard. In pro bono parlance this is the equivalent of competing in a triathlon: you need to be able to perform at a very high level in a variety of different skilled areas, including scoping, inspiring, orienting, providing feedback and inspiring some more

Powered By Pro Bono assumes that if you can successfully manage the most complex pro bono projects, you can handle easier projects too – those with fewer moving parts. This chapter provides all the models, worksheets, and tips you’ll need to manage a complex and challenging pro bono engagement.

Taproot identifies fives principles of successfully managing pro bono projects:

  • Be prepared to invest time – You’ll also want to track the time you spend on this so you can determine ROI.
  • Act like a paying client – Take your role seriously. Focus on results.
  • Foster internal team communications- Keep everyone up to date. Get internal buy-in.
  • Create space for consultants to share – Both good and bad news should be shared.
  • Celebrate before during and after the project.

Managing pro bono is not all that different from managing any consultant or consulting team. Nearly all of the best practices apply. But there is also an added layer of responsibility that I’d probably call something like “purpose management”. Essentially this means keeping your pro bono team inspired and excited to support your mission.

This chapter of Powered by Pro Bono is quite technical – think lots of charts, lists and tables.  While I definitely encourage you to buy the book and check it out, a detailed overview is impossible here.

If you have never managed a consultant before (paid or unpaid), here are some good places for nonprofits to start:

Instead, the rest of my article will focus on Taproot’s recommendations for inspiring and motivating a pro bono team mid-project, this “purpose management”.

Managing on Purpose

Taproot identifies three core behaviors that underlie successful consulting relationships: trust, mutual receptiveness to the best methods and solutions, and something called “provision of value”.

The value that consultants provide is usually their skills. And, normally the value that their clients would provide back would be money. In pro bono, where money is out of the picture, that value needs to be primarily meaning and personal satisfaction.

While there are a number of secondary benefits for the consultant like the chance to work in new areas, learn new things or open up a new business line, most pro bono projects will live and die on the ability of the pro bono consultants to remain engaged through the inevitable ups and downs of a lengthy project. Turn it around – if you’re the consultant, your involvement may look like this:

You’re a busy professional. You connect with a nonprofit who has an interesting project. You are inspired by what the organization does and the vision of knowing you have helped them in their mission. After a long series of revealing emails, meetings and briefs, the work begins. But it’s harder than expected and the first presentations reveal some significant misunderstandings. More meetings and emails follow. At that point, deflated, this just feels like work, but with no pay.

Inspiring pro bono consultants is so important because pro bono can be a long process – and that process can itself be a big obstacle!

Many managers tend to think of project implementation as looking like this: Planning > Kickoff > Implementation > Debrief. Instead, Taproot’s model is: Prepare > Kickoff > Discovery > Drafting > Delivery and Implementation > Evaluation and Celebration. Extending the project phases this way not only reflects how projects really work, but it also illustrates with clarity all the ways the project can go wrong.

As with all volunteering – skilled or unskilled – recognition of the hard work, commitment and meaningful impact of volunteers is important. Powered By Pro Bono recommends that nonprofits use good recognition practices through all phases of the management of the project.

Aside from being fully organized and taking care of business, it’s always a good idea to focus on being inspiring, fun, and positive in your interactions with your pro bono consultant or team. When in doubt, talk about your mission and the important impact the project will make.

We’ve talked about good recognition practices at length at Engaging Volunteers. Here are a few links:

To keep your pro bono consultant or team engaged on a purpose level during specific phases, here are a few tips from Powered By Pro Bono that stood out for me:

Purpose During Preparation

If the project lags during the back and forth of preparation, it’s good idea to continue to send background and general materials to the team. This keeps them connected to your work and mission while they are assessing their own appetite for the project. Say thank you.

Purpose During Kickoff

Try to hold the kick off meeting in person and at your office if possible. This way the consultant or team can absorb more about your culture and work. This is also a very important time to purposefully communicate your mission and how the project ties back to it. Put some time into how you will do this during kickoff.  Say thank you.

Purpose During Discovery

Discovery is a creative and inspiring time. You’ll also be sending over lots of materials. But this is when you especially want to load the consultant(s) up with anything you think will spark their interest and help them see clearly the power of your programs. Say thank you.

Purpose During Drafting

Drafting is the first time you’ll see the results of the consultant(s) hard work. Most likely it will need to be changed to fit your needs, and that’s OK. Thank the pro bono consultant or team profusely, but the best thing you can do now is give thoughtful, specific feedback that takes their contribution seriously. If your consultant has suddenly vanished or isn’t responding, this is also a time to reiterate (by email or phone or in person) the value of their work. Say thank you.

Purpose During Delivery

This may be the hardest phase for your consultants, as the project schedule sometimes is extended (for reasons good and bad) and the light at the end of the tunnel is still not in full view. Help your pro bono team stay motivated by doing the work you need to do to show you are respecting the process: deliver your feedback in a timely fashion, keep all your stakeholder involved and updated, and start looking ahead to using the materials and scheduling trainings if necessary. Your consultants will appreciate that you are excited and ready to implement their hard work. Say thank you.

Purpose During Evaluation

Hooray! You’ve come a long way, baby. Time to celebrate. The links we posted above have lots of ideas for celebrating volunteers. Taproot adds to these in Powered By Pro Bono with a simple reminder. You guessed it: Say thank you. At every meeting.

Next week I’ll cover how to scale your pro bono involvement. Scaling pro bono means the process of taking your organization to the next level by tapping pro bono resources all around you on a regular basis. It’s the brass ring of this series – the promise that your growth as a nonprofit will only ever be limited by your ability to harness the good will of people who care in your community.

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.

Securing Pro Bono – Where to Find the Help Your Organization Needs

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.

With $15 billion or more giving in pro bono service each year, nonprofits can be leaving a lot of capacity building on the table by not developing a plan to involve highly skilled volunteers and consultants. 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.

Last week I used this space to share Taproot’s best practices on scoping pro bono – that is, how to figure out what your organization really needs.

(Read more: Scoping Pro Bono: What Are You Talkin’ ‘Bout?)

If you’ve gone through this process of lining up project needs in the context of your organization’s overall mission and strategic goals… got buy-in from the team… and figured out who internally will be setting up the project and playing key project roles, you’re probably ready to start talking about it outside your walls. But who should you be talking to?

This week let’s explore where to find the individuals, service firms, or companies who are most likely to be your pro bono partner.

The Intersection of Ability Street & Purpose Drive

The good news is that some enormously important trends are putting the lens on pro bono in a big way.

First, as the business climate has become more competitive and shifted away from the blue collar industries of the 1940s-’70s, there are more highly skilled, specialized professionals in legal, strategic planning, design, architecture, finance, HR, marketing, PR and IT. According to Taproot, there are more than 6 million workers in these fields alone working at corporations, professional services firms, or running their own small businesses.

Meanwhile, more employees, especially talented younger workers (read: Millennials/Gen Y), want to make a difference and expect their employers to have programs that connect their skills with community needs. And plenty of schools, professional associations, and credentialing programs actually recommend or require skilled service of students or members.

So it’s not a lack of opportunity that’s the problem. If anything, Powered by Pro Bono paints a compelling picture that with so much good will and opportunity swirling around the sector, the bigger issue is making sure you don’t waste your time and energy talking with the wrong set of prospective partners.

Taproot identifies 6 common models for pro bono engagement:

  • Loaned employee – A worker from a company is paid to take a leave of absence to pursue pro bono at a qualifying nonprofit.
  • Functional coaching and mentoring – A consultant might be paired up with a nonprofit executive or team to strengthen a certain area of operations.
  • Marathons – Short-term events where lots of skilled volunteers are organized to work on projects with a quick series of deliverables.
  • Standardized team projects – Skilled teams with various role players are assembled, often with a dedicated manager and a common work plan, based on the nonprofit’s need.
  • Open-ended outsourcing – A service firm or company might make X number of hours available each year. Very common in legal or marketing.
  • Signature issue – A firm or company might leverage its core business competency to extend lots of team players to work with a community of partner nonprofits.

Knowing the models is important because some projects (and some sources of help) are better suited for your needs than others.

(8 Proven Pro Bono Models for Community and Business Impact)

For example, last year my team at VolunteerMatch got help during a design marathon produced by Discovery Communications (Animal Planet, Discovery Channel, etc.). We needed highly skilled design work in both print and web that could be done in a very short period of time. But we had a strong plan and we had smart team members back in our office who could take the files and run with them. So a marathon with hundreds of participating creative professionals made a lot of sense for us.

Each source of pro bono help has its pluses and minuses, according to Powered by Pro Bono. 

Companies may have lots of professionals offered in a variety of pro bono models, but you may also get stuck with someone who has never worked in a consulting capacity before because that’s not their role at the company.  Meanwhile, volunteers from a small professional services firm might be great partners on a project but if they get paid work they might not have the time to help your organization out anymore.

Pro bono sources also have different reasons and motivations for contributing their skills.  An individual pro bono consultant may have a very strong connection with your mission or your staff.  A company may need to place a team of 8 volunteers during Q1 in order to meet their reporting objectives.

Turns out parsing the different models, sources, and motivations of pro bono is hard work! Managing these risks is a big reason why a whole army of intermediary groups have sprung up to help nonprofits pair up with pro bono resources. Taproot Foundation itself is one example –, CreateAthon, EPIC, and are just a few others.

They each have a different approach and different business models. Some even charge the participating nonprofit, but the point is to take some of the decision-making and/or project management off your hands.

Approach & Ask

As a marketing guy I’m comfortable sharing messages and ideas with audiences, but I can’t sell worth a darn. Powered by Pro Bono shares a couple of principles to approaching possible pro bono partners and making the ask. They may seem obvious, but each requires a bit of finesse and extra work – although the pay off is a stronger likelihood of success.

  • Multiple entry points – If one door is closed, keep looking; another may be open. While a community involvement officer at a company may not return your calls, a connection made via one of your board members may yield the big meeting you need.
  • Bring reinforcements – If you have a personal connection who helped you get access, bring them along. You need all the help you can get.
  • Be ready to talk about it - With all your hard work during scoping, you should already have a project scope document that describes the project, outlines the goals and timing, and takes a first stab at what you think the project will require from the pro bono team.
  • Know their business case – All this means is that you should have a good sense of how helping your organization will help the company or pro bono consultant achieve its goals. Nonprofits do this all the time when they write grants or pursue sponsorship.
  • Know the rules – If you’re approaching a professional school program or an intermediary, pay attention to the guidelines! They are there to save you time: Knowing which organizations can take part, what kind of work will be done, how long the pro bono projects last, and what your own reporting requirements might be are all potential indicators of good or bad fit.

Finally, if you have to write a proposal, don’t do it in a vacuum. By the time a potential pro bono partner asks you for a proposal, they have a vested interest in its success, too. Work with them to make the proposal as strong as possible.

The good news is that if you get this far — that is, if you’ve identified sources of pro bono, checked out the various models of pro bono, learned about the risks and benefits of different pro bono arrangements, and moved ahead to approach and ask — you’re already well on your way.

All that hard work can only increase the chances of great work coming out of the project. Next week we’ll tackle that topic.

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.