How Pro Bono Consulting Is Helping Non-Profits Maximize Their Impact?

For years, the US nonprofit sector operated as a “€œthird sector”€ filling a gap in social needs by providing services that the government and the private sector either didn’t or couldn’t fill. Nonprofits were known for doing charity work and while many organizations provided valuable services, the focus was more on making sure those services were actually delivered rather than knowing if they were truly effective (i.e. producing outcomes that resulted in added value). Until recently, measuring performance was still a business concept somewhat foreign to the nonprofit community. Not anymore. (for a recent coverage on this very topic from The Bridgespan Group see: Measurement as Learning: http://bit.ly/mo7jmq).

Over the last decade, several macro-economic trends have not only profoundly transformed the ways business is conducted, they have also added new and complex challenges for nonprofits:

Funding: secure funding no longer exists. Many public programs are being cut while foundations require nonprofits to demonstrate that the services they provide actually have an impact
Information technologies: communications and business transactions rely on ever more complex technologies and tools
Communications: to remain competitive and cut through the noise, nonprofits need to articulate powerful brands that must be communicated effectively
Human capital: nonprofits need workers who are not only passionate about doing social good but also have skills and expertise to perform in constantly changing environments

These challenges are forcing nonprofit organizations to become more business savvy and sophisticated so that they can actually deliver social impact demanded of most funders. In other words, funders want to see a return on their investment. Many nonprofit leaders now run their organizations like a business, which require them to put in place complex business systems, tools and metrics (for an interesting perspective on this, though its merits have been debated, see: “€œThe End of Charity: How to Fix the Nonprofit Sector Through Effective Social Investing”€ by David E. K. Hunter, Philadelphia Social Innovations Journal, October 2009” http://bit.ly/hC7Rg2).

With limited resources (both financial and people), nonprofits have turned to highly skilled pro bono consultants to lend their time and expertise to help them work on complex projects which they wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford or have the in-house expertise to do them. Over the past 10 years, several pro bono consulting firms have responded to these needs by offering long-term strategic consulting engagements (Taproot Foundation, HandsOn Network, designNYC), or more discreet, short-term and tactical projects (Catchafire, Sparked). Today, the demand for pro bono services keeps growing. The areas for services most commonly offered and in high demand are: marketing, branding and communications; human resources, leadership and board development; capacity building; strategic management and information technologies.

So is pro bono consulting delivering on its promise to enhance the impact of nonprofits?

So far, though the results have been more anecdotic than formal, they have been largely encouraging. Many nonprofit leaders I interviewed who received pro bono consulting services, report many benefits. Among them:

Pro bono consulting teams brought a business discipline that forced us to raise our own level of professionalism;
Give leaders and senior managers functional knowledge and practical education on areas they may not have specific expertise or knowledge in (marketing and brand projects for example)
Many report immediate tangible results after launching a new website with increased hits and calls for services
Better understanding of their competitive environment and of their audiences, allowing some to tap into new opportunities (for funding, collaborations or partnerships)
Recruit more talented workers and volunteers
Teach organizations a process for developing a comprehensive strategy to grow the organization overtime (strategic planning)

Overall pro bono consulting is helping nonprofits to be stronger organizationally, to think more strategically about the future and their environment, and to be more judicious and efficient with their resources. Pro bono expertise helps leaders become more sophisticated business players and deliver services more effectively.

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

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