Getting pro bono help
March 24th, 2010
How do I get more pro bono help?
To borrow the punch line of a hoary old joke, "Very carefully."
One obvious way to take care in pursuing pro bono assistance is to work with. Taproot Foundation recruits professionals from the for profit world and supervises them in nonprofit pro bono work. In my mind, they are a key asset in the social sector.
The advantage to Taproot over any other pro bono situation is that they have been doing this long enough that they have developed a good system for structuring the work and keeping quality at a consistent level across all the different individual professionals they recruit. However, this comes with the corresponding disadvantage that your needs have to fit within their parameters. There are strong limits to how much they can customize to fit your particularities.
But for nonprofits with some basic needs, Taproot provides very good value. So good that lots of organizations want them. Winning a Taproot project is a competitive and involved process. Taproot reports that the process may take six months.
Whatever volunteer help you do get, you need to realize that strictly speaking, there is no such thing as "pro bono" help. That Latin term means "for free" and the reality is that volunteer help is going to come at some cost, even if no checks are written.
You should go in with your eyes wide open and ready to properly manage those costs.
Here are three typical costs involved in seeking pro bono help.
As relative outsiders, volunteers can need more direction and handholding. Also, call me cynical, but I would argue that all volunteers are seeking (often subconsciously) "payment" of some sort, whether the currency is gratitude, sense of meaning, relationship with you, or something else. You better be ready to detect what their version is and pay up.
So avoid any offers that come from individuals you don't already know, trust, and with whom you have a good rapport. You want to have a good sense of what the relational terms will be.
At its worst, receiving pro bono product can feel like receiving fruitcake at Christmas. You see the final website, the database, or the logo and say, "Gee, thanks, that's wonderful" while internally you're wondering "Now, what am I going to do with that?"
And you can't regift a website. In fact, if you don't use the product delivered, you risk offending the volunteer and generating bad word of mouth.
In my opinion, getting sub optimal results is the biggest potential cost of pro bono help. When someone is giving you something for free, it is psychologically difficult to push hard for exactly what you want. The Taproot process helps deal with this, but even they depend on clients to overcome this natural internal reluctance.
This cost is closely related to the quality one. Pro bono workers will slot their work for you in the "volunteer" portion of their lives. Generally, this portion is one of the first to get squeezed by work, health, or family situations. And again, you won't feel very empowered to press them to speed things up.
Depending on pro bono help for ongoing time sensitive work is courting disappointment. For instance, I frequently encounter clients whose website updates or newsletter production have been held hostage by an slow to respond volunteer.
Except in extraordinary situations, I recommend against depending on pro bono help for mission critical or time sensitive projects. Try to restrict pro bono to longer term, important but not urgent needs.
Done carefully, pro bono can be a good way certain organizational needs are met and individual supporters are engaged.
Just don't think it's free.