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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.