Does Pro Bono Consulting Make You A Better Professional?

Assessing The Impact Of Pro Bono Consulting On Professional Skills.

“€œI learned how to be a better “listener” in a meeting. I recognized I could encapsulate the client’s wishes in a clear, succinct manner that was inclusive of other participants’ contributions. I became more confident in my analytical abilities to interpret data. I used these skills to reframe goals which could be put into actionable plans that made sense to the client and my team.”

Debbie K., Communications Strategist, New York

Pro bono consulting – professional work provided at no charge as a public service – is such common practice in the legal profession that the ethical rules of the American Bar Association recommend that lawyers contribute a certain number of pro bono hours each year. The model’s underlying quid pro quo is well established: by lending their associates’ time and legal expertise, firms’ goodwill is recognized in the community while clients receive free legal help they need but can’t afford, and lawyers get to sharpen their skills. For many young associates, doing pro bono work can be an opportunity to tackle more challenging cases combined with the thrill of experiencing first hand the impact of their hard work.

The idea of leveraging the skills and expertise of business professionals to help nonprofits succeed by building their capacity and maximizing their impact has taken hold over the last decade. It was just a matter of time before pro bono consulting spread beyond the legal community, now embracing such disciplines as marketing, branding, web development, strategic planning, and talent development. In the US, The Taproot Foundation (http://www.taprootfoundation.org/) has been leading the “pro bono movement” since 2001 and today is the largest pro bono consulting firm in the country and new players have recently emerged.

“Pro bono work has given me the opportunity to partner with and learn from professionals outside of my direct skill set. For example, my current project team includes an accomplished brand manager. Because my professional expertise does not directly include brand management, I have learned more than I ever expected from her. I am now able to incorporate insights from the brand strategy process into my daily work, which has greatly enhanced my strategic abilities.”
Kirsten F. Project Manager, Chicago

While it is relatively easy to identify and measure the impact of pro bono consulting on the nonprofit community, little has been said about how it may contribute to the professional development of consultants who give their time and skills on a volunteer basis.

Yet it is precisely because pro bono consulting contributes to strengthening their professional skills (besides making a difference) that the model is attractive and has proven to be so successful.

Digital technology, globalization and the recent economic crisis have profoundly altered the workplace paradigm: job security no longer exists, we are asked to do more with less, and new technologies constantly require us to keep learning new skills so we can remain competitive. Given these factors, it is not surprising that recent studies of engagement in the workplace suggest that almost 80% of employees feel disengaged from the work they are doing (Thoughts on the Future of Work, Vanessa Miemis, emergent by design, Dec 3, 2009 http://emergentbydesign.com/2009/12/03/thoughts-on-the-future-of-work/). This not only affects individual performance but also results in significant loss of productivity upsetting bottom lines. In spite of the current challenges in the workplace, we all want to perform work that matters.

The good news is that 58% of those recently surveyed (Deloitte 2008 Volunteer IMPACT Survey) believe that contributing business skills to a nonprofit, in a volunteer capacity, can be an effective way to develop leadership skills. There are many ways companies can drive engagement in the workplace from flexible hours to working remotely, from a chance to champion a project to an opportunity to build and demonstrate expertise, and opportunities to contribute to a worthwhile cause. We believe well designed and executed pro bono programs are a strong driver to creating on-going workplace engagement, increasing performance along with impacting social change.

“Working on pro bono missions assures me that I’m working with organizations that are equipped and ready for the undertaking and that I will have a great team to work with.”
Patricia S., Brand Strategist, New York

“A board member during our initial meeting was clearly skeptical about working with a pro bono team. When we presented our findings, he was impressed. I felt it was a great achievement in sticking to our guns, remaining professional, and proving our worth. It really grew my confidence.”
Julie T., Account Director, New York

The random testimonials of some Taproot pro bono consultants reproduced here show that their pro bono experience has had some significant impact on their professional confidence. Whether hard skills (software literacy or web development techniques), or soft skills (listening, persuasion, consensus building), all reported a positive outcome from their experience working on a pro bono mission.

Pro bono consulting is not just volunteerism; it’s real work – without compensation. The value is real but the stakes are high. And savvy volunteers know this and approach pro bono service with the same, if not often higher, level of professionalism and dedication that they would any work assignment because they’re connected to the mission of the organization that they serve, they hold team members accountable and the impact of their work is palpable. Giving skills for a cause that matters makes the efforts more rewarding. It makes for happier, more engaged, more empowered and more skillful workers.

“Working on a pro bono service grant helped me improve my skills with Photoshop and change my thinking as a print designer to thinking for web design. I was also inspired by the high standards and dedication of the other volunteer team members. Overall it increased my confidence and I felt really proud of the result.”
Mary S., Graphic Designer, New York

In the US, where volunteerism is much more engrained in the social fabric of its citizens, pro bono consulting is almost always executed outside of business hours. Some companies have recently started offering their employees opportunities to perform pro bono consulting, under a larger corporate social responsibility program, by partnering with organizations offering pro bono (e.g. Discovery Communications, Discovery Impact program: http://impact.discovery.com/). It’s an attractive model. The cost to companies can be minimal but the intangible benefits much greater: increased employee engagement and work output combined with the value of being recognized as a socially responsible business.

Skills frequently gained from working on pro bono projects:

  • Leadership, sense of ownership & initiative
  • Confidence
  • Teamwork
  • Working with nonprofits executives and boards
  • Problem solving
  • Exposure to business concepts (e.g. brand identity) or projects (e.g. building a website)
  • Listening
  • Consensus building

For the time being, measuring the real impact of pro bono consulting on the skills of volunteers is an imperfect science due to the lack of objective metrics. But the “pro bono movement”, though still an emerging space within the world of volunteer opportunities, is here to stay. In fact, it continues to expand here in the US, and international teams, inspired by the Taproot model, are introducing pro bono consulting in Sweden, Japan and China (and soon in France), where a huge pool of young professionals may be the next pro bono generation. Pro bono matters because it strengthens communities by adding much needed value to the nonprofit sector in partnership with skilled volunteers and with the private sector as a way to raise their corporate citizenship profile.

This entry is adapted from an original article written in French for €”Pro bono lab, le blog du bénévolat de compétences”€ (http://bit.ly/i90VJm).

 

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