Max Skolnik has over 13 years of senior-level experience in youth development and nonprofit advocacy. He is Executive Director of the DC office of the Taproot Foundation, a national leader in the pro bono movement.
In a time where the economy and job market are uncertain, funding streams are unstable, philanthropic trends are changing, and management practices across businesses are inconsistent, it is becoming more and more difficult for nonprofit organizations to create an impact while growing and remaining sustainable.
Facing these challenges, nonprofits are beginning to ask, how can we again focus on core missions, on the innovative programs that dramatically improve outcomes, on the disruptive interventions that shatter, not just move, the needle, while in this marketplace? This can be achieved through the adoption of pro bono.
For one thing, we are wearing too many hats. Areas like marketing, human resources, and IT are often some of the last to be staffed up, with nonprofits relying instead on a well-intentioned but ad hoc system to carry out these critical functions. We need to stop pouring valuable time, staff, and money into places where experienced professionals can accelerate the learning curve by offering their expertise. We need to liberate nonprofits from these capacity sinkholes and reallocate those resources. A well-integrated pro bono plan can provide significant organizational strength and begin to break the cycle of fundraising for survival.
This can be a game changer. Imagine if you had 20% of your time and budget back. What would you do with that gift?
Pro bono is not a magic bullet, and it requires a significant amount of thought and preparation. On average, projects last 50% longer than paid consulting ones. However, with full organizational buy-in, pro bono’s value will become evident in the fully-functioning donor database, the well-developed strategic planning process, the slick marketing and brand campaign, the effective staff performance management system, and the course-correcting financial analysis. These are the foundations of a great nonprofit, and the rock star organizations are already doing this through pro bono.
If you want to succeed, assess your commitment level, start small, and keep your expectations reasonable. Remember, you need a little capacity to build capacity. Over the years, the Taproot Foundation has learned some valuable lessons on what makes pro bono work. Keep these five principles in mind as you begin your journey:
► Principle 1: Know and define your needs. Everyone wants fundraising help; start drilling down into the deeper issues with your key decision makers. What three capacity challenges are really holding you back? How can you clearly scope, prioritize, and champion these issues?
► Principle 2: Get the right resource for the right job. Think strategically about how to frame your ideas and secure the right people. Check out these online tools to prepare your projects. Use board members, corporate contacts, LinkedIn networks, and capacity building intermediaries.
► Principle 3: Be realistic about pro bono. You may not get everything you want and it will definitely take longer than expected. Pro bono is great for supporting growth and innovation. It should never be used for urgent needs or crisis management.
► Principle 4: Act like a paying client. Treat pro bono engagements the same as you would paid consulting relationships. Of course you should respect the competing demands placed on pro bono volunteers, but don’t be afraid to speak your mind and provide frank and specific feedback. Don’t compromise on quality and impact. The worst outcome is an unquestioned deliverable that sits on a shelf.
► Principle 5: Learning goes both ways. Clearly, pro bono volunteers bring great stores of professional expertise to the project. When properly utilized, their knowledge and fresh perspectives can be transformative for a nonprofit. At the same time, nonprofits have much to offer in terms of sector information, customer satisfaction, and empathic behaviors.
With these principles in mind, pro bono can be a nonprofit power boost. It can bring a level of operational stability and sophistication that will professionalize your staff and board, finely tune your message, streamline systems, and create a roadmap for growth and sustainability. Then, the truly brave, extraordinary, sector-changing work can begin.