Pro bono service has experienced such an explosion of popularity in the last few years that it’s now the fastest growing employee engagement program. But is skills-based volunteering one of those gifts that givers like to offer more than recipients want to accept?
There’s plenty of data to show how pro bono service greatly benefits companies. CECP's Giving in Numbers report found that increased giving of all kinds lead to greater company investments in communities, which in turn leads to better business performance. Companies which increased giving by 10 percent since 2010 also increased median revenues by 11 percent between 2011 and 2013, while revenues fell for all other companies.
But for nonprofits, taking on pro bono volunteers initially requires a lot of preparation, and too many charities avoid this opportunity out of concern that it will be a time sink that won’t deliver sufficient value for the trouble.
So is the growth of pro bono service doomed to be lopsided, with more would-be volunteers than opportunities? That’s certainly a possibility if companies continue to meet resistance at their offers of help. If corporations want to offer successful pro bono programs, they must work with nonprofits to overcome the inherent challenges perceived in their offer of skills-based service.
This disconnect between the proven value of pro bono to companies and the perceived challenges of pro bono to nonprofits is the focus of a recent report issued by LBG Associates, Balancing Pro Bono Supply and Demand: Challenges and Solutions from the Nonprofit Point of View.
The data from the report shows that in spite of the hesitations by nonprofits, pro bono service is overwhelmingly worthwhile and usually accomplishes its aims. When asked if pro bono works:
- 95% of respondents strongly agreed, agreed or somewhat agreed that their target issue was addressed
- 82% of projects undertaken by the respondents in the past three years were completed and the deliverable implemented
- 97% said the deliverable was at least somewhat useful; more than half said it was very useful or extremely useful
- 75% said the end product was a good return on their investment of time and resources
So if skills-based volunteering greatly benefits nonprofits and companies alike, how can corporations help turn a nonprofit’s “no” into a “yes”?
The report advises companies to start by understanding the sticking points to accepting pro bono service, and then countering these objections with ready solutions. As detailed by the report, here are the five top sticking points and solutions:
Sticking point: GETTING STARTED
Solution: Educate them. Companies can provide readiness resources, including links to online educational resources and printed materials, with permission from the copyright owners. Companies can also create their own materials describing their approaches to pro bono, what services they can provide, a typical project, and even testimonials from previous project hosts. The idea is to educate and reassure that the company is committed to making the volunteer relationship work. A number of survey respondents said that it was important that the company providing the volunteer be supportive of the project and step in if anything goes wrong.
Solution: Think small. Another way to help nonprofits get started is to offer pro bono services that they might not have considered. There is a tendency to define pro bono as consulting services, implying a high-level strategic project, but pro bono is anything that involves the use of professional services. Corporations can provide volunteers for small, discrete projects such as graphic design, web design, copywriting and others that will help the nonprofit start small and work its way, if needed, into more complex projects. Also, there is a greater likelihood of success if the project is discrete and time bound.
Sticking point: FINDING THE RIGHT HELP
Solution: Give them choice. Why not require that corporate volunteers provide a resumé and make themselves available to the nonprofit for an interview? Frequently, the company chooses the volunteers and sends them in with no input from the nonprofits. The respondents were very clear that they want to have a choice with whom they work. The corporate pro bono manager can provide a list of potential volunteers and have the nonprofit make the final choice. This may not work in all cases but it is worth trying when there are multiple employees who can do the work and want to help.
Solution: Screen for affinity to mission. When there are multiple volunteers with the right skills set for the project, the company can do its own screening to narrow down the candidates. For example, the respondents said that a volunteer with an affinity for the mission tends to produce higher quality work. That is a great first question for any potential volunteer—are you familiar with the nonprofit and its mission?
Sticking point: FINDING THE TIME
Solution: Be sensitive to the issue. While a pro bono volunteer can’t create more hours in a day, there are ways to work effectively with time-strapped nonprofits. Make sure that the corporate volunteer is sensitive to this issue and does not make unreasonable requests or make more work for the nonprofit. Asking a nonprofit for 24-hour turnaround on information needed probably is not reasonable, for example.
Solution: Give them more help. Be open to providing a different kind of help. Perhaps an administrative assistant could be deployed on-site to help with information gathering or other tasks the nonprofit needs done in support of the pro bono engagement. Or provide funds for additional personnel, such as a temp, for a defined time that would free up staff members.
Sticking point: NONPROFIT CHALLENGE
Solution: Keeping the Project on Track. Allow the volunteer to do pro bono during the workday. Often the reason why projects derail is the availability of the volunteer. Too frequently the volunteer can only meet in the evenings and weekends, making the workday longer for stretched-thin nonprofit staff. As providers of volunteers, companies can make it easier on everyone if they support workday volunteering. Some do have paid-time-off policies that volunteers can use for pro bono. Even if they don’t, if companies are going to have a pro bono program, they need to show their support by allowing their employees to attend meetings at the nonprofit during the day and to make time in their workday to complete pro bono work. Having to work “off the side of the desk” creates additional stress on the volunteer and often leads to missed deadlines or incomplete deliverables.
Sticking point: Funding the Implementation
Solution: Include a grant with the pro bono project. Depending on the project, it may make sense to include an implementation grant to ensure that the work done on both sides shows a positive return. Nonprofits complain that volunteers made recommendations and then walked away. Pro bono volunteers can not only stick around to help with implementation but can also deliver the funds that will make the implementation possible. It could be as small as printing costs for the new human resources handbook or an online advertising budget to support the new marketing plan.
Like any partnership, the one between companies that would like to offer skills-based service and the nonprofits that would benefit from accepting this form of volunteering must be managed with care. The LBG Research report is a helpful guide to getting nonprofits past the blocks to a mutually beneficial relationship that holds tremendous upside for everyone involved.