For the public good: The pros and cons of going pro bono

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In the ever-constrained nonprofit vernacular, there is perhaps no finer word than free. Or is there? A popular feature of the sector for years, pro bono services seem to be growing in popularity, as individual suppliers and established consultancies make free a regular part of their repertoire. It’s an evolution seemingly met with open arms and diminished pocketbooks. CharityVillage wanted to explore this thing called pro bono: how it works, its benefits, challenges – and the cost, if any – of free.

In pursuit of free

Toronto’s Evergreen often brings on pro bono consultants to help meet their mission. Most recently, business development analyst, Kathleen Burton, ‘hired’ Lisa Rudner, an Australian expat with social return on investment (SROI) certification and experience working for a capital venture firm that conducted strategy work with nonprofit organizations. It’s the type of expertise that can really come in handy at Evergreen, particularly as they develop an intricate five-year business plan.

The team was delighted when Rudner offered some assistance pro bono, training them first in SROI, then Program Logic Modeling, an intricate approach that evaluates project outputs and outcomes. An appreciative Burton knows Rudner’s availability is contingent upon her finding a job, explaining Evergreen would ideally hire her themselves - if they were only able.

What’s in it for you?

Considering the high level of expertise Evergreen’s receiving at no cost, it’s no wonder they - and others with limited resources and big dreams - are fans of pro bono. But what attracts the consultants? Those who knock on Evergreen’s door are usually between jobs, explains Burton. Offering their services not only helps organizations but expands their contact base and opportunities for work. Win-win.

For consultants at Endeavour — a Toronto-based consulting firm that only provides pro bono strategic management services for nonprofits who lack resources and expertise in-house — benefits abound as well. “The experience offers them an opportunity to give back to community, improve their business skills and nonprofit knowledge,” explains co-founder and VP, Ada Tsang, adding many who wouldn’t otherwise be involved in the sector often become long-time volunteers.

Many of Endeavour’s consultants have more than 15 years of experience. And, with few volunteer opportunities allowing people to use their knowledge and skills, Endeavour’s a popular choice, enthuses Tsang. “You can create lasting change; you’re helping organizations become more sustainable.” The valuable payoffs may help explain the 150-plus applications Endeavour received this year for consultant positions. Considering only 30 will be hired to take on four to six projects this year (seven consultants are assigned to each, committing five to ten hours a week for six months), the screening process isn’t easy.

Clients go through a tough screening too. “We need to make sure they’re ready for change and for consultants,” says Tsang. They must meet a host of other criteria too, including a threshold of a million dollars in revenue. To ensure a successful consultation, Endeavour brings in advisors who follows the team from beginning to end, puts volunteers through training workshops and conducts quality control and evaluations of projects to ensure everyone’s meeting their high standards. At the end of each project, teams prepare a final report and follow-up with clients after six months, a year and two years. It’s a rigorous process that’s given five-year-old Endeavour a host of adherents.

New model addresses issues

Yet, some pro bono practitioners question the long-term sustainability of traditional models. “We go beyond providing discounted fees or offering traditional pro bono services,” explains James Temple, director of corporate responsibility at PricewaterhouseCoopers Canada (PwC).

Their Not-for-Profit Apprentice Program trains PwC employees from across the company’s business spectrum on critical issues in the sector and matches them, in teams, with executives at nonprofits looking for help brainstorming solutions to strategic challenges. “The goal is to learn from each other and to have a ‘Eureka’ moment,” explains Temple. “Together we develop a simple presentation that highlights options and a path forward that can be presented to a board or a leadership team.”

PwC’s model addresses some critical issues of traditional pro bono. “Many projects propose solutions that cannot be properly implemented by the nonprofit due to existing skills and capacity gaps,” Temple claims. Working together and creating terms of reference can help clarify roles, responsibilities and deliverables, he says, emphasizing it’s not about creating professional reports or taking the lead, it’s about empowering people to create change. “Too many times we see a dusty, bound report full of recommendations sitting on the executive director's shelf but that’s not helpful,” explains Temple. “It creates a pro bono paradox.”

Theirs is an outcomes-based approach to sharing and learning, one from the other, he adds. It’s an important distinction, especially to those who argue the proliferation of pro bono services is detrimental to the sector. While, in the past, nonprofits received legal and accounting services for free to augment unaffordable skills, today an increasing number of businesses are jumping onto the pro bono bandwagon. “But they’re not doing it effectively, or listening to nonprofit leadership teams,” argues Temple. “They do pro bono work in logistics, strategic planning, communications or marketing - areas that might better be positioned as longer-term partnerships to help foster a "teach, don't tell" environment,” he claims.

What’s more, organizations and consultants must be mindful about the power dynamics that are created when ‘big business’ is seen as coming in to ‘fix’ a problem. Consultants must find ways to “enhance knowledge and add bench strength, not provide their opinions out of context,” Temple advises, to ensure nonprofit executives remain in the drivers’ seat.

The cost of free

So can pro bono come at a cost? Ligia Peña seems to think so. Senior development advisor at Canada World Youth, Peña worked as a consultant for five years, during which time she often went beyond the call of duty, offering extended hours, free tools and services. It was about the cause, after all. “I was driven by my heart not my pocketbook,” she relates wistfully of her desire to help the sector as best she could. “You want to give; it’s in our DNA.”

Problem was, Peña found herself quickly burning out and becoming resentful. Despite her passion, something was getting lost in the shuffle: herself. She’s not alone. Running a business is difficult enough without feeling the need to offer freebies – whether out of commitment or to remain competitive and attract customers – with one’s own sustainability the potential sacrifice.

Peña relates how, after submitting a proposal to an organization looking for a fundraising consultant, they responded with a request for pro bono services as a condition to signing. “I was furious,” she exclaims. “I thought it was inappropriate and disrespectful.” She refused, explaining how the condition, “diminishes the value of what I’m offering.” Besides, she adds, “I choose where I do my volunteer work; if I want to give more of my time it will be my decision.” Still supportive of pro bono on principle, Peña advises organizations to avoid potential pitfalls. For example, it should develop organically. Develop a relationship with suppliers first before asking for free services, she says. “Otherwise, if that’s all you depend on, you’ll always feel like you’re begging and no will want to work with you.”

Even so, she cautions, “If it’s free, buyer beware.” For one thing, independent consultants necessarily — and understandably — prioritize paid work, with free offerings falling to the bottom of their to-do list. If you need something on a tight timeline, you may be better off paying for it. For another, a consultant’s heart may be in the right place but if they don’t know what they’re doing, they could cause more harm than good.

Sometimes free ends up being more work than you bargained for, adds Peña. “It can take a lot of a staff person’s time to manage a pro bono project, getting consultants up to speed, analyzing their work and providing feedback,” agrees Burton. So make sure you need the work they’re offering. “You don’t want to waste everyone’s time.”

Management is key

Due diligence is always imperative to ensure the consultant’s a good fit and is needed altogether – free or not. Just ask Jim (last name withheld). He was very involved with a small 20-year-old charity, run entirely by volunteers. They were doing well: they had annuities, fundraising was strong, cash flow never an issue, virtually nothing was spent on promotions. All was good. That is, until the organization decided to develop a bigger project and bring in a professional fundraiser on a pro bono basis.

After bringing all activities to a standstill, she eventually advised the board to hire her as executive director, leading to the departure of 50% of the volunteers, including board members, among other issues. The executive director’s contract was eventually terminated but the charity is now operating with less than half of its original budget and volunteers. “The organization became a shadow of what it once was,” concludes Jim.

As for lessons learned? “You have to be very careful about the pride of membership,” he says, reinforcing the fact that extremely informed and educated members had been running the organization very well for years. “The consultant may be well qualified but that was a shift not only in how we did our charity work but a shift in focus,” he says.

“It may have started out as pro bono but the cost of free was tremendously huge. It’s kind’ve ironic.” Peña agrees. “You really have to weigh the pros and cons,” she says. “Sometimes spending money is cheaper than getting something for free. It comes down to good solid management.”

Elisa Birnbaum is a freelance journalist, producer and communications consultant living in Toronto. She is president of Elle Communications and co-founder of SEE Change Magazine and can be reached at:

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