Why Are Lawyers The Only Ones Who Get To Do Pro Bono Work?

The founder of the Taproot Foundation explains how and why he’s working toward making all professionals give back through their work.

Most organizations tackling social problems don’t have the access to the marketing, design, technology, management, or strategic planning resources they need to succeed. Without this talent, few are able to have their intended impact on critical issues like the environment, health, and education.

This post is part of a series on the future of service in America, in conjunction with Catchafire.

In striking contrast to this deficiency is the reality that most nonprofit organizations do have access to the legal services they need. The legal community has made pro bono service part of their culture and an expectation of lawyers and law firms. The result is that it is rare for a nonprofit to pay for legal services or go without them.

Inspired by the success of the pro bono movement within the legal profession, I started the Taproot Foundation in 2001 to make pro bono service as prevalent in all the business professions as it is today in the legal profession.

Imagine if organizations tacking social problems had the same access marketing, design, technology, management, or strategic planning resources as corporations. Our goal is to make this a reality by 2020, so that all social entrepreneurs and nonprofit leaders are equipped with the tools and expertise they need to succeed in the work that matters most. We called this campaign Pro Bono 2020.

We just celebrated our 10th anniversary and marked the halfway point in our Pro Bono 2020 campaign. As a result of our work, today many companies and professional services firms offer pro bono programs—donating consulting services to nonprofits. Twenty of the top 25 MBA schools now offer pro bono services. Over a billion dollars have been pledged by companies in response to a challenge by the White House. A marketplace for pro bono services is quickly emerging.

In creating change at this scale—and changing the role of business professionals in our society—the hard part wasn’t convincing business professionals to donate their time and talents. Our challenge was overcoming decades of ad hoc and inconsistent pro bono service had left the nonprofit sector burned and reluctant to engage. Nonprofits would remind me of the cliché "you get what you pay for" and introduced me to a new favorite: "pro bono is the gift that keeps on taking."

Who would want to use a resource that was so likely to result in failure? And similarly, who would want to donate their time to an effort with that kind of likely success rate? Before we could begin to tout pro bono as viable solution, we had to understand the art and science of pro bono service. We had to know what it would take to make pro bono as reliable as paid consulting; a resource that could garner the trust of business and nonprofit professionals alike.

In seven years, we built the largest nonprofit consulting firm in the country, serving hundreds of nonprofits per year. We recruited over 40,000 business professionals and created teams to build websites and conduct market research and other critical projects for local nonprofits. We had achieved a 95% completion rate and had client satisfaction rates to rival any professional services firm.

While there were countless innovations in the process that made this program successful, the core unlock was incredibly simple. Make the nonprofit your primary customer (rather than the business professional) and treat them like you would in any paying engagement.

This one insight led to a cascading set of design decisions. It meant starting with the project needs of the nonprofit rather than the abilities of a business professional that happened to want to help. It meant creating a clear scope of work and project plan rather than winging it on the fly. It meant staffing projects with the full team a consulting firm would offer and not asking a designer to also be the marketing manager and copywriter. It meant doing a proper discovery and really understanding the context of the project before you jumped into execution.

Demonstrating the power of pro bono to thousands of nonprofits and many more business professionals created a market for pro bono service. It inspired the American Institute for Graphic Artists to make it a goal for designers to allocate 5% of their time for pro bono service (PDF). It enabled companies to see the potential for their employees to do more with their volunteer time than clean up a beach. Most importantly, it started to change the way nonprofit leaders think about access to business talent and gave them hope that they might just be able to achieve their visions for a better society with that talent.

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  • cameron burgess

    We've given away more than $200K in pro bono commercialisation services over the past decade; everything from strategic planning through communications (our firm is dedicated to working with social and environmental entrepreneurs).

    Actually doing pro bono seems to come down to the willingness of the advisor to give their time away and the capacity to recognise that a client is a client whether they pay you or not. 

    At the end of the day, pro-bono should be a win-win when done right - at a minimum you get to feel good about having provided a needed service to an organisation that is committed to positive social and environmental outcomes; at best you gain a profile client and demonstrate a values-set that may not be evident in more traditional corporate work.
    Why more professionals don't do pro bono work is beyond me ...

  • Ian Scott

    Beliefs or Reality ?

    National surveys reveal that a lawyer’s average pro bono contribution is estimated at less than half a dollar a day and half an hour a week, and much of this assistance does not go to individuals of limited means or to organizations that assist them.

    ABA Standing Committee; Pro Bono and Public Service : Supporting Justice Report on the Pro Bono Work  of America’s Lawyers

    “The substantial reliance of  American-style civil legal assistance on pro bono implies that  those factors influencing it may also affect the availability of legal aid. Inparticular, both the amount and the type of available civil legal assistance may be affected by conditions in the markets for legal  services.”

    The reality of  private pro bono is  that the scarce private resources available are not free, nor are they purely charitable.

    There is still a market based on some exchange that distributes these resources. Driving the market is not demand, but the interests and priorities of those providing the resources.

    SANDEFUR, R.. “Lawyers’ Pro Bono Service and American-Style Civil Legal
    Assistance,” Law & Society Review 41, 79-112. (

    Ian Scott
    LLB(Hons) LLM

  • Aaron Hurst

    The legal community still has a lot of work to do to realize its ideals, but the reality is that a nonprofit is three times more likely to receive legal pro bono services than marketing and 15 times more likely than HR services. (Source: BoardSource & Taproot Foundation, 2011)

  • Alice Korngold

    Aaron, the value that Taproot provides is powerful in many ways.

    I agree with you that there are many people with business experience and expertise who want to make a contribution. And nonprofits very much need the skills and talents that business people can bring to bear. But the two parties need a broker with a systematic approach to match the volunteer consultants with the projects.

    By providing that service, your organization ensures that volunteers have a productive and rewarding experience (and return and recommend others) and that nonprofits gain the resources they need to achieve their vital missions in service to the community.

    Bravo for your great work, and for continuing to seek ways to further improve on your model!


  • Jackie Norris

    Go Taproot - Powered by People! We applaud Taproot Foundation’s
    efforts to broaden the pro bono movement beyond the legal profession and bring about a new normal in supporting local communities. For change to happen, it is going to take strong non profits and active, engaged companies. Companies of all sizes across several industries are stepping up to invest in
    their people and in their communities through skills-based volunteering and pro
    bono. (To learn more - www.abillionpluschange.org)
    Jackie Norris, ED, Points of Light Corporate Institute

  • Elaine Fogel

    Aaron, I applaud this accomplishment. It is very impressive. I have two perspectives from my own personal experience.

    When I worked with pro bono ad agencies, our nonprofit had to wait for work because corporate clients always came first. Then, we we were charged top fees for production work. When we worked with smaller start-up agencies on a pro-bono basis, they wanted to win awards, so our needs weren't always at the forefront.

    Now that I have my own marketing agency, focused on serving nonprofits, I bring 25 years of "inside" nonprofit experience to the table - both as a professional and as a lay leader. We charge reasonable fees and take great pleasure when we see our nonprofit clients make headway.

    I realize there are countless smaller agencies and consultants across the country that do similar work and focus on the nonprofit sector. Surely, there's a place for us in the marketplace, too. Many are in this game because we have a passion for the sector, not because we want to make zillions.