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.