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.