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Volunteerism 2.0: Exploring a new way of lending our time for good

By Tom Watson on June 18, 2008No Comment

Volunteerism 2.0 by Shannon Bond

Why now? Volunteerism has reached a place where companies are beginning to accept its value as a given and are looking for ways to increase the return on investment it brings their business.

Combined, the pressing needs of society and the increasing sophistication of volunteerism programs make the time ripe for putting service to the test.

But designing new ways for volunteerism to make a greater impact, while simultaneously maximizing returns to businesses, is a formidable challenge. One compelling concept which is potentially capable of both is pro bono service.

The concept is certainly not new, but it has been gaining momentum since earlier this year when the President’s Council on Service and Civic Participation, chaired by Jean Case, issued a challenge to corporations across the country: can corporate America donate $1 billion in service in three years?

Companies have already begun to respond, most notably Deloitte, with a three-year, $50 million commitment of service. But why pro bono? Is it the answer to achieving increased impact for communities and businesses simultaneously? According to its supporters, it just may be.

Volunteerism vs. Pro bono
In the same way that skills-based volunteerism took traditional “extra pair of hands” volunteering to the next level by supporting nonprofits in a more strategic way, pro bono service takes the strategic focus of skills-based volunteerism and creates a community-focused extension of the business.

Pro bono projects are run just as for-profit projects, with set deliverables and outcomes, and project objectives are lofty. According to Jean Case, the goal of pro bono service is to help nonprofits extend their impact by achieving scale and sustainability for their programs.

As an extension of revenue-generating business, pro bono projects deliver targeted expertise and specialization. Companies take the efficiencies and value that have made them successful in the marketplace and apply them to nonprofits, therefore freeing up resources at the organization to specialize themselves. In this way, pro bono service increases efficiency and helps nonprofits focus on their greatest needs.

While pro bono service is more of a time commitment than traditional volunteering, and therefore more costly to companies (which often allow release time for projects), many would argue that returns are higher as well. In addition to traditional volunteerism benefits, pro bono opportunities provide an added draw for a company’s top Millennial recruits who are looking for built-in community-focused experiences at work. Additionally, pro bono work is excellent for job training and retention ensuring employees are consistently challenged and engaged. And pro bono projects can reinforce the value a company and its brand bring to the market by demonstrating that its services are helping to improve our communities in tangible ways. 

Implications for Nonprofits
As exciting as the increased momentum fueling pro bono service is to the nonprofit world, not every organization is equipped with the capacity to identify pro bono projects, let alone implement the recommendations needed to achieve scale and sustainability. It’s a classic Catch-22: the nonprofits in most need of strategic pro bono assistance are those least capable of taking them on.

Recipients of pro bono service need to be organized enough to know what they need and have enough bandwidth to work with project teams throughout the process.  Organizations must step out of their comfort zones and think big, in addition to committing to projects on the same level as pro bono volunteers. For a nonprofit, pro bono service may be free in the monetary sense, but every project has “hidden” costs namely time that must be considered up front.

Practical Considerations
While the theories driving pro bono service are sound, the concept is still new to many companies and nonprofits.  A few practical considerations:

What type of company are you? Pro bono service is a natural fit for professional services companies because, according to the Committee Encouraging Corporate Philanthropy, “selling services, scoping projects and managing client relationships are all part of their business model.” For non-professional service firms however, organizing a pro bono “practice” can be more challenging and will require more effort on the part of employees perhaps not used to a consulting model.

Can you afford pro bono? It can be difficult to secure management buy-in for a few hours of volunteer release time, so offering employees for days or weeks at a time to work on pro bono projects will be easiest for larger, well-established companies that can afford the opportunity cost associated with paying employees for non-revenue-generating activities.

How can nonprofits find pro bono help? Intermediary organizations such as Greater DC Cares help to pair organizations with willing companies.  This will likely become a growing challenge as more companies develop programs. ed

How does a company measure the value of donated pro bono service? No set standard exists…yet. Currently, companies like Deloitte measure their donated time in the same way as their revenue-generating time through the hourly billable rate in order to paint a realistic picture of the scope of the company’s donation.

For additional resources on pro bono service please reference the following links:

Become a pro bono champion: http://www.nationalservice.gov/about/initiatives/probono.asp

Deloitte volunteer impact research: http://www.deloitte.com/dtt/article/0,1002,cid%253D162408,00.html

Points of Light and Hands on Network Resources: http://www.pointsoflight.org/networks/business/

Pro Bono Action Tank: http://www.doitprobono.org/

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