What's Your Return On Pro Bono?
How to invest in the work you love without sacrificing business integrity
There are a lot of differing opinions on what pro bono means. If you read the Online Etymology Dictionary, this term is short for pro bono publico “for the public good.” However, more recently, this term has been commonly accepted as meaning “for free.”
For a business owner, the term pro bono it is often introduced when a well meaning, but financially disadvantaged, non-profit asks you to give your product or service at no cost.
Businesses are good targets for all types of fundraising. From Girl Scout cookies to local community fund drives and to international relief efforts, non-profits target businesses looking for a quick boost in their fundraising campaigns. Likewise, all organizations covet a board of directors made up of successful businesspeople with deep pockets and a compassionate heart.
So what's wrong with that? That's just the way things work, right?
Should Businesses Even Participate In Pro Bono?
Absolutely, yes. It comes down to responsibility, resources, and reward.
Businesses should participate in support efforts that serve the needs of its community and beyond. We have the responsibility, as well as the resources, to improve the public good. Likewise, we have the privilege to enjoy the reward that only comes through doing the right thing.
So, the issue isn't with the generosity or compassion of the businesses that give, but with their ability to do something truly significant. The problem is in the unfocused, unintentional, reactive nature of the way in which businesses give that limits their effectiveness. The greatest pitfall most companies fall into is the law of the squeaky wheel.
Law of the Squeaky Wheel
This law states, “The squeaky wheel gets the oil.” From a pro bono standpoint, this usually means that the organizations who are able to get through your natural defenses, appeal to your compassion, or quite simply ask enough times will eventually cause you to give out of a sense of guilt and a desire to appear benevolent.
All the while, we secretly hope to maximize each gift as a great PR tool for gaining additional new work.
There Is A Better Way
Let's go back to our title, “How to invest in the work you love without sacrificing business integrity.” The word invest may seem odd when paired with the commonly understood definition of pro bono being synonymous with “free.” Likewise, how could you sacrifice your business integrity by being generous and giving?
I define business integrity as the activity of an entity that provides an excellent product or service which generates profit, provides for its employees and vendors, and models its ethics in its daily activities. Pro bono work should support this commitment.
No one would start a business by waiting for someone to come and ask him or her to do a wide variety of work for whatever pay rate the customer set. Every successful business has learned to specialize within their specific skill set or industry and receive compensation that generates income. Likewise, no one would invest in a mutual fund that was comprised of the stocks of those businesses that begged long enough to be included.
Why don't we apply some of these basic principles to our pro bono work?
Everyone desires to make the most of their time, talent, and financial resources. But how do you do that? I have four rules that you can apply that will help you gain control of your pro bono efforts and create a significant increase in the benefit to your recipients.
A. “Burger King” Rule
You are likely familiar that Burger King promises that you can have it “your way.” In other words, you can set the agenda, define the types or specific causes you will support, and determine the ways in which you will participate. All of these decisions must be done in advance of pro bono work. After all, it is much easier to “hold the mayo” than attempt to scrape it off.
Start by answering these questions:
- What is your passion?
If you were to retire with great financial resource, what would you do? What motivates you? Where is your heart most readily drawn when a need is presented?
- How can you give of your time, talent, and money?
Most organizations simply ask for money. A multi-dimensional approach to pro bono will allow you to invest more of yourself personally and will require a more holistic review of your opportunities to give.
- Which cause(s) would be a great match/partnership?
From a business perspective, there are natural partnerships you may want to explore. If you are an eye doctor, a partnership with the Juvenile Diabetes Research Fund is a great connection. Your understanding of the needs of those with juvenile diabetes and potential threats to good vision will give you unique insight into how to best serve this non-profit. Likewise, you will maximize your time, talent and money by staying focused on a single cause.
These partnerships offer you alignment between your business objectives and the needs of these deserving non-profits. It may mean that you may not be able to give to other very worthy, but not intentionally aligned, organizations in the future.
B. "Aretha Franklin" Rule
We all know what this rule is about … R-E-S-P-E-C-T.
- Do great work and charge for it
If time is money, how much is your time worth? Many businesses would rather donate their time or product and not write a check. What many overlook is the true cost of their time or product. Not only the actual cost of the product, but the time spent considering your pro bono options. These include the cost of preparing the product, delivery, and then potentially supporting that product. Additionally, sometimes when people get things “for free” they don't always appreciate the gift or recognize the value, leaving the business with negative feelings.
- Don't charge a reduced fee
Secondly, businesses will offer a discounted rate to a non-profit. If you are doing excellent work and charging a fair price, why would you do that? Instead, your rates should be the exact same for every client. If you are going to offer the same level of service and quality, how can you justify the reduced price to your regular fee customers?
- Don't give away work (as a company)
The reality is that “charity” work always gets done at the end of a day, close to a weekend, with whatever energy or resources is left over. It is easy to fall into a “good enough” approach when you are discounting or giving away your service or product.
- Do less, better
Another way to break the squeaky wheel trap is to say “no” to verbal requests. A quick “yes” typically means that you won't give much, likely a minimum gift to get rid of the requestor. A “maybe” means “I really don‘t want to do this, but if you keep coming back I will offer you some ‘hush’ money so you will quit bothering me.”
A “no” is the only answer you can give that represents a definitive purpose in your giving. An initial “no” allows you to not rush into a decision that may steal from your ultimate goals. It also allows you to state what it is that you do support. It takes the pressure off of you and allows you to demonstrate your carefully considered approach to pro bono. Most importantly, it allows you to give in great amounts to those causes who can do the most good within your area of passion.
C. CARFAX Rule
Over the past several years, CARFAX Inc. has been able to revolutionize the used car industry by setting a standard and process through which they report on the history of every vehicle. You can know the general history of a car before you buy. This third party validation on the history of each vehicle offers peace of mind to a potential customer.
Before you put money into a car, you do your homework. So, why would you invest in pro bono opportunities without considering its impact on your efforts?
Using this same approach, you can establish a clearly defined, easily measured process by which you will define the types of causes you will support. Additionally, these causes can self-select their fit based on your standards.
- Establish a standard and a process
Rather than falling prey to the tyranny of the urgent and relying on a "first come, first serve" basis for giving, make a decision on how you want to give. Set the standards for those organizations that you are interested in supporting. Communicate these standards in easily understood measures that potential recipients could review as a means to determine their own eligibility.
Secondly, establish a process for application. Clearly outline your expectations and requirements and don't make exceptions.
- Write them down (and make them available)
Capture these standards and processes in a readily available document or web page. Carefully list each step in the process and require that each step be accomplished in the proper order to be considered.
- Use a board of advisors
In order to be accountable and transparent, it is advisable to establish a voluntary board of directors who will review applications for funding (at least annually) and decide what will receive funding. This allows you to ask external clients or respected business associates to participate in your pro bono activities. Finally it enhances the transparency and authenticity with which the program is administered.
- Capture and report on outcomes (in white papers/press releases)
Pre-determine your expectations and intended results. Require your recipients to provide you with accurate measurements of the actual outcomes. Then capture the effect of your giving in terms of humanizing metrics that others readily appreciate.
Using our eye doctor example from earlier, it would be better to state "We were able to serve 237 disadvantaged men and women at the Hope Center with comprehensive eye care and fit each them with new glasses."
D. The Smart Investor Rule
The best protection from financial loss for a smart investor is to diversify. Since we are now considering how we can invest in our pro bono offerings, we need to borrow this same principle. Remember that we are each capable of giving of time, talent, and money. But, rather than diversifying the causes you support, you should diversify the ways that you will give across these same three areas.
You may consider offering people time off from work for a certain number of volunteer hours. You could give your employees the opportunity to represent the company as non-profit board members, community leaders, or as volunteers.
Your strengths are a great match for a well-deserving cause out there. Once you are able to establish a win-win partnership, giving of your expertise and insight should be measured and offered within a budgeted allowance.
The most obvious way to give back is often the least respected. Look for opportunities to match financial gifts with those organizations who have established programs, systems for transparency, and will allow you to combine giving of your time and talent with your finances.
Using these four rules, you can take control of your pro bono opportunities and invest in the work you love without sacrificing business integrity.
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