November 11, 2012

Pro Bono Help Can Do Far More for Nonprofits Than Save Money

Photograph by Caroline Schiff

Aaron Hurst, founder of the Taproot Foundation.

Donors Choose has become one of the most successful nonprofits in America. It is based on a simple idea: that teachers are struggling to get money for basic supplies and have creative ideas for bringing their subject matter to life that require just small sums.

At the same time, plenty of people are interested in investing in public schools and teachers but are wary of donating to a large bureaucracy.

So DonorsChoose.org has become a site where teachers can post their ideas and financial needs and donors can browse through the projects and choose which ones to support by writing a check directly to the teacher.

Half of all the public schools in America have at least one teacher who has posted a project request on DonorsChoose.org in recent years, and over 800,000 individuals have donated money through the site.

To achieve that success, the group didn’t have a vast staff. Instead, its founder, Charles Best, sought as much donated support as he could get. Technology professionals have given their time to help the group build a constantly evolving efficient marketplace for teachers and donors.

Today, that same approach to using pro bono help is aiding the organization as it matures. Pro bono service accounts for over 20 percent of its budget. American Express, for example recently provided the group with a team of analysts to figure out how viable the DonorsChoose.org approach of matching donors and teachers would be over the long haul.

It would be a mistake to assume, however, that only national nonprofits can secure substantial pro bono support. As a matter of fact, groups of all kinds are increasingly seeking out professionals who can volunteer the financial, marketing, business, and other skills a nonprofit needs to keep the organizations running.

Among the small groups taking this approach is Clinic by the Bay, a volunteer-driven health center in San Francisco’s Bay Area that serves 1,000 patients a year with a budget of $1.7-million. Pro bono support accounts for 47 percent of its budget. It’s not just doctors and nurses but also professionals at medical labs, law firms, and marketing companies that contribute to running the clinic.

Some organizations use pro bono help not just to keep the lights on but to go from good to great. Among them: the Children’s Creativity Museum, in San Francisco. Today, Creativity is a hip, tech-savvy youth art center with innovative and popular attractions like its imagination and animation labs.

But not so long ago, what was then called “Zeum” plateaued with a budget of around $1.7-million and a dwindling number of visitors. Audrey Yamamoto, the group’s executive director recognized the need for a revamped identity and reached out to a board member—a partner at Bain & Company—who secured a team of management consultants to conduct research on top family destinations in the United States.

Ms. Yamamoto worked with the consultants to develop a strategic plan that would turn the museum into an art and creativity hot spot.

The group soon realized it would need a more compelling name to match this intent, so Ms. Yamamoto—through another board member—secured $250,000 worth of services from Landor Associates, a top strategic consulting firm that had recently helped Yahoo in a marketing effort.

It’s not just the free labor that is prompting more and more nonprofits to ask professionals to donate their skills. Pro bono volunteers add professional skills that nonprofits could never afford and strengthen ties to corporate supporters who want to put their employees to work in meaningful ways rather than simply writing checks to nonprofits.

Pro bono service is one of the most effective professional-development tools companies can offer, because it exposes workers to new ways of thinking and applying their skills. What’s more, providing pro bono service can help a company improve its corporate image.

And the pro bono workers can become a potent marketing force as they spread the word to friends and colleagues about the mission of the nonprofit they have helped.

Nonprofits often don’t have systems in place to store institutional knowledge or do more than react to the challenges of the day. With help from volunteers, nonprofits can invest in the research they need to help them create thoughtful strategic plans and detailed evaluation measures for their programs.

By using pro bono support that way, nonprofits are free to focus their limited resources on programs. That means everything in the world of competitive grant seeking, especially as foundations and donors increasingly show more interest in measures of impact than in building an organization’s management capacity.

Still, creating a pro bono program is not easy for nonprofits. It requires a culture shift to encourage everybody to think first about how to get pro bono help rather than ask an employee to take on a new task or seek money from the board for a new hire.

The next step is to think strategically about long-term needs instead of using pro bono help to vanquish a to-do list. Forecasting pro bono needs for the next six to 12 months helps the organization design ambitious pro bono projects that have a lasting impact.

Nonprofits must then develop a system to ensure consistency and quality control among volunteers. This ranges from tracking projects and skills of professionals who can give their time to training staff members to be exceptional pro bono managers and standardizing the process of orienting new volunteers.

Once that happens, nonprofits can become more deliberate in how they seek out companies that believe in their mission and have employees who can help do what they need. Board members play a vital role in this process because they often have the connections and background to find the professionals who can most help their organizations.

Foundations can also play a significant role in building the capacity of nonprofits to attract pro bono work. Grant makers too often focus on the results a program is supposed to achieve but don’t always consider what it takes to accomplish those goals.

By helping nonprofits enlist professionals to volunteer their time, donors can help create the holy grail of nonprofit financing: creating a truly self-sustaining organization.

Aaron Hurst, founder of the Taproot Foundation, is author of “Powered by Pro Bono: The Nonprofit’s Step-by-Step Guide to Scoping, Securing, Managing, and Scaling Pro Bono Resources,” a book published by Jossey-Bass, from which this essay was adapted.