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July 10, 2013; Nonprofit Roundtable


Nonprofit managers who have experience working with pro bono consultants are likely to agree with these four principles for a successful engagement identified by Elizabeth Linzer of Catchafire:

  • Taking a strategic approach, which means attention to the longer-term view and careful prioritization of needs.
  • Clearly scoped projects, which identify objectives, deliverables and estimated timeframes.
  • Commitment from the nonprofit’s leadership team, including a clear point of contact.
  • A quality match between the nonprofit and its pro bono consultant(s) in terms of skills and expertise, as well as working style and commitment to the cause.

Implicit in each of these principles is organizational readiness to receive—and act upon—the guidance that’s being offered. So whether the match is made by an agency like Catchafire, a business that manages its own pro bono engagements, or an individual who happens upon a nonprofit in need of her expertise, a thoughtful assessment of organizational need and capacity to absorb what is being offered is critical. Otherwise, both the nonprofit and the well-intentioned volunteer(s) are likely to have a disappointing experience.

On the flip side, a 2011 Taproot survey found that the main barriers to nonprofits using pro bono support are scoping, securing, and managing projects.

There is an ever-expanding body of knowledge about how to do pro bono well on both the nonprofit management and the skills-based volunteering sides of the equation. Much of the best thinking in this field comes from such agencies as the NYC-based Catchafire, which has been serving social good organizations since 2009; the Taproot Foundation, which was founded in 2001 and now has offices in six US cities; and Business Volunteers for the Arts, which has been supporting arts and culture nonprofits since 1975 and operates in 14 US cities. In the business sector, Deloitte is among the leaders in articulating how to best approach pro bono engagements.

Nonprofits have much to gain from pro bono engagements. A Billion + Change notes that the value of skilled support in areas like general operations, technology, and professional services can be five times greater than the value of traditional volunteering. What nonprofits often fail to understand is how much they have to offer in exchange for the pro bono services they receive. Skills-based volunteering is all the rage these days in corporate circles and business schools, and Taproot states that more than 30 percent of companies now offer pro bono opportunities to employees. The legal and architectural professions include pro bono expectations in their codes of service, and the design community is moving in that direction. A Fast Company article called nonprofit board service “the single best way to develop leadership skills.” And the Stanford Social Innovation Review calls skills-based volunteering “the new executive training ground.” On top of the many business reasons for encouraging or participating in pro bono work, volunteers consistently report that they gain more than they give when they help a nonprofit solve a problem or plan for the future.

So nonprofits need not assume a “hat-in-hand” stance when they seek pro bono professional support. There’s something in this for everyone, and with increased attention to best practices, the impact of pro bono service is likely to keep increasing in the years ahead.—Eileen Cunniffe