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.