The Pros and Cons of Pro Bono

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At its root, pro bono publico means work done “for the public good.” First recorded in the early 18th century, it implies work done that is right and moral…delivering a benefit for all.

But in modern parlance, the reference pro bono has come to mean “unbillable,” implying it conveys no value to the provider…a gaping hole on a timesheet (aka the kiss of death for an upwardly mobile professional). But if that were indeed true, why would any thinking professional provide it?

Distinct from volunteerism, pro bono work refers to the donation of professional services that the individual, group or entity…cannot afford to purchase. It touches and presumably advances the lives of people who need it. Obscured by the myopic lens of “time equals money,” the strict bottom-line interpretation of pro bono calls into question the very logic of the act. It shifts it into the category of obligation, undermining motivation.

In doing so, it diminishes the prospect of thinking broadly, deeply, and strategically about the value of pro bono work in identity branding, relationship strengthening and professional fulfillment. In reality, strategic and well-orchestrated pro bono services deliver a tremendous and, arguably, longer-lasting benefit back to the provider by conveying meaning, purpose, and connection to something greater.

Between deadlines for journalists, running video shoots for foreign press and making sure the social media queues are filled, pro bono PR work can seem like more work for your staff...with less (or no) money. Communicating internally its importance around shared values, alignment around a cause, how it advances the very purpose of the group, is key. Because it requires just as much thoughtfulness, time (sometimes more) and extra careful consideration of mission and purpose, how it is considered in-house is as critical as how it is communicated externally.

Pro bono work lies central to strong corporate social responsibility programs. Yes, it can be time-consuming, but employees are more engaged when their deeper purpose is so clearly reflected in the work they are doing. Quite separate from volunteerism, pro bono work plays to the strong suits of the company and its professionals, usually conveying more unique and long-lasting value to the recipient. Volunteering to clean up a park or work at a soup kitchen certainly has value for the recipient and internally as a team-building exercise, but it has been shown to have a limited impact. Painting a school or building a playground well is not really as easy as it looks. Whereas, sharing professional knowledge can have a lasting impact.

At YUI+Company, we have developed long-term communications and crisis plans and executed programs pro bono that have delivered value for years. The length of the relationship varies by need, our own internal resources, and whether we see the recipient learn, grow and incorporate our offerings in a meaningful way that advances our shared values. Discernment is how you drive focus to something meaningful for yourselves: declining requests is often as important strategically as accepting a project that syncs with the mission, values and vision of the provider.

In short, pro bono work benefits the giver as much as the taker. Your organization gets more than a name on a sponsorship get engaged employees with a tangible sense of accomplishment and pride. You get a client that can build from your work for years to come, and a lasting relationship with a non-profit. It feeds the soul. Everyone’s.