Pro Bono: A strategic approach to building capacity
by Jennifer Chandler
Nonprofit leaders are urged to make decisions and solve problems “strategically” – especially when operating in an environment of limited resources -- so why aren’t more nonprofits seeking out pro bono volunteer assistance as a strategic approach to their human resource needs? As a former coordinator of a pro bono legal program for nonprofits that annually helped hundreds of charitable nonprofits with scores of legal projects and saved them collectively hundreds of thousands of dollars every year, the reticence to engage with pro bono volunteers puzzles me.
As we approach National Volunteer Week let’s dust off the myths about pro bono. Board members provide an enormous amount of pro bono assistance to nonprofits. In fact, the Taproot Foundationestimates that the annual financial gifts board members make to charitable nonprofits is just a fraction of their contributions in other ways. Taproot asserts that some of the strongest nonprofits in the country are governed by board members who apply their core professional skills to support the nonprofits’ business infrastructures -- covering as much as 10-20% of these nonprofits’ budgets with their pro bono assistance. Just think if that happened at your nonprofit.
Board members are the most common example of pro bono assistance. But what if your nonprofit’s website could be designed by an experienced designer who didn’t charge a penny? And what if projects such as trademark registration for a logo, graphic design for an annual report, business planning, and consulting to select the right accounting software – were accomplished in a timely, professional manner – without the fees normally associated with top-notch talent?
For a growing number of charitable nonprofits this scenario is a reality. And thanks to a growing number of pro bono visionaries and pro bono match-makers, such as Taproot Foundation, andCatchafire, there is recognition that pro bono is a smart strategy to manage human and financial resources that also offers a nonprofit new connections and can actually free up staff resulting in improved effectiveness. Because pro bono offers so much potential, we asked Elizabeth Linzer, Lead Partnership Manager, Catchafire, to help us dispel myths that may be holding nonprofits back from seeking out pro bono volunteer assistance.
Linzer: “Many nonprofits tap into volunteers for support, either as a core part of their programming (for instance, Big Brothers Big Sisters) or as a supplement to staff and intern efforts. However, most organizations aren’t yet turning to pro bono as a strategic resource to help solve their higher level, technical, and strategic problems. Our belief at Catchafire is that this isn’t because pro bono isn’t “right” for some organizations, but rather that there are some common myths holding organizations back:
Myth #1: “I’m just too busy”: Nonprofit leaders often perceive volunteers as a distraction that should be kept out of their already over-booked and hectic schedules. Yet volunteers used strategically can essentially free up your leadership’s time and energy to focus on what they do best. For example, a professional fundraiser can develop your organization’s donor relations strategy and educate staff members on how to execute that strategy, while you focus on developing deeper relationships with the organization’s top donors.
Myth #2: “I already have too many volunteers”: Many organizations are already engaging community members as volunteers and feel like another volunteer might “break the camel’s back.” But organizations could instead focus on engaging a smaller number of pro bono professionals who bring strong professional skills, expertise, and personal passion to the table -- while still offering significant ways for traditional volunteers who are important “friends” and members of the community to contribute.
Myth #3: “Pro bono is the gift that keeps on taking”: Approached and executed in the right way, pro bono is anything but costly. We believe that pro bono must involve a strategic approach, clearly scoped projects, commitment from senior leadership, and the best possible volunteers. When pro bono is set up in this way, organizations receive more than a deliverable; they have an opportunity to build a relationship with their next employee, donor, advocate, and/or board member.
At Catchafire, we feel “in-the-know.” But the reality is we’re not alone. In the past decade, thousands of nonprofits across the globe have begun to embrace pro bono as a key part of their strategy, and support organizations, like Catchafire, ensure that it is a highly effective process. Pro bono can be the unexpectedsolution to addressing your organization’s most pressing problems. So the question shouldn’t be why not; but, how? How does every organization advance its mission by leveraging pro bono talent? The opportunity is clear, and organizations like Catchafire and Taproot are here to help.”
Technology is helping pro bono come into its own. Now a pro bono volunteer sitting in her office in Seattle can assist a charitable nonprofit in Alabama. Meanwhile, there is a growing awareness that with the right mix of careful project vetting, volunteer matching, and administrative support for the pro bono volunteer, as well as support for the nonprofit pro bono client, pro bono can move nonprofits forward by leaps and bounds.
We are enthusiastic about pro bono as a strategy for capacity building. We’ve invited Aaron Hurst, President & CEO of Taproot Foundation, and Rachael Chong, CEO & Founder of Catchafire to talk with our State Association network about steps nonprofits can take to leverage pro bono skilled volunteers for their own capacity building. We’d love you to join us on April 25th, 3:30-4:30 Eastern. Please register for this webinar through your state association of nonprofits.
Celebrate National Volunteer Week, April 21-27
Need ideas for celebrating volunteers? The resource guidefrom the Points of Light Foundation offers project ideas, resources, and ideas for recognizing your volunteers throughout National Volunteer Week and beyond.
Building Capacity with Pro Bono – Free webinar
April 25 - 3:30 pm Eastern
Contact your State Association for registration details
What we’re reading
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by Aaron Hurst
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64.5 million people volunteered at least once between 9/2011 and 9/2012.
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics
Nonprofit Finance Fund State of the Sector Report
More than half (52%) of the nonprofits responding were not able to meet the demand for their services in 2012. 54% say they will be unable to meet demand this year. 39% collaborated with another organization to improve or increase services.