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Getting Started with Pro Bono
Some of the strongest nonprofit in the country use pro bono to supplement up to 20% of their budgets. Rather than doing more with less, pro bono helps you do more with more. Get started by learning more about the areas where nonprofits need pro bono services the most, and what principles you should follow to make sure you do it right.
Ready? Explore Taproot's programs and start using pro bono today!
Common Nonprofit uses and needs
Pro bono service is quickly becoming the norm in every profession, and it is helping organizations address critical needs in nonprofit marketing, fundraising, HR, IT, board development, and more. If any of these needs sound familiar, check out our index of common pro bono projects, or begin searching for pro bono providers.
|Field||Pro Bono Use||Additional Need|
|Financial and administrative support||29%||28%|
|Financial advisory or consulting||27%||43%|
|Organizational design or coaching||26%||45%|
|Board member or executive search||20%||46%|
PRINCIPLES OF PRO BONO
Pro bono is our business. Over the course of serving more than 2,000 nonprofits across the country and working to design pro bono programs for dozens of companies, we have uncovered the keys to making pro bono fulfill its potential. It all boils down to five basic principles.
Principle one: Know and define your need
Engage pro bono resources proactively, according to your organization priorities.
WHEN IT'S IMPLEMENTED, PRINCIPLE ONE LOOKS LIKE THIS:
A nonprofit applied to a service provider for a project to build a brochure. The staff knew what they wanted the brochure to do—reach a new population of students for their school—and the combined client and pro bono team dedicated a big part of their first group conversation to discussing this need. With a clearly-defined end goal in mind, the team of consultant team hit a home run on the project.
WHEN IT'S IGNORED, PRINCIPLE ONE LOOKS LIKE THIS:
A nonprofit approached an intermediary for “a better annual report.” When pressed for details, they said they wanted this key document to look better.
Look and feel was indeed a concern, but what really troubled the staff was that their marketing content was weak. No one at the organization was bold enough to name that problem, however, because no one wanted to insult their fellow team members.
As a result, after months of work with a pro bono team, the organization got a new, very pretty annual report—with the same dull, confused messaging. Owning up to the real problem could have resulted in stronger messaging that the organization could use in a variety of mediums, well beyond an annual report.
Principle two: get the right resource for the right job
Successful pro bono engagements align people, process, and scope to address your specific need.
WHEN IT'S IMPLEMENTED, PRINCIPLE TWO LOOKS LIKE THIS:
A national education-focused nonprofit partnered with a team of design consultants to update their training process for new mentors. The consultants brought their deep expertise in design thinking—a way of problem solving that uses empathy, information gathering and analysis, and common design principles to develop creative solutions—and a new perspective that allowed the nonprofit to think entirely outside of the box about what their mentors needed.
With the help of a unique skill set, what originally began with the goal of updating a stack of training materials and presentation slides turned into a fundamental rethinking of the training procedure and a truly transformational impact on the nonprofit’s mentor program.
WHEN IT'S IGNORED, PRINCIPLE TWO LOOKS LIKE THIS:
When a New York City–based nonprofit got the chance to bring on several new interns through a partner with business school connections, management was thrilled. Here was a way to get more staff—something they’d been wanting to do for years—without increasing budget! They ended up bringing on eight new interns in four months, almost doubling their headcount.
But while the interns were smart, promising, soon-to-be-MBAs, the internship period turned out to be challenging on both sides. Managers simply took the old role descriptions they’d been yearning for and allocated them to the interns, regardless of the interns’ experience.
Not unexpectedly, it didn’t work. The interns left the internship disappointed, the staff was frustrated and confused, and the partner was left very hesitant to make such a connection again.
Principle three: be realistic about pro bono deadlines
Be thoughtful about which projects you can address—even small tasks can take longer than expected, and pro bono is rarely a good solution for urgent needs.
WHEN IT'S IMPLEMENTED, PRINCIPLE THREE LOOKS LIKE THIS:
A nonprofit was pursuing a new earned income revenue stream (opening a craft shop) and needed help preparing a business plan for a grant application to fund it. Knowing the potential for slow turnaround on pro bono engagements, the nonprofit engaged a pro bono team (a group of consultants from a professional services firm) well before the deadline, and gave them a clear scope. With the right supply of time and direction, the consultants delivered, and the nonprofit secured the needed funding.
WHEN IT'S IGNORED, PRINCIPLE THREE LOOKS LIKE THIS:
A policy and advocacy-focused nonprofit, excited about their latest white paper, engaged a pro bono graphic designer to give the white paper a visual treatment in time to launch the paper at a conference in six weeks.
When the designer got pulled into an urgent deadline for a paying client, the nonprofit had to use the untreated, text-only version of the white paper at the conference and re-release the final “designed” version a few weeks later, confusing readers and frustrating the nonprofit.
Principle four: Act like a paying client
If you want your pro bono consultants to treat you like a paying client, begin by treating them as if you were paying.
WHEN IT'S IMPLEMENTED, PRINCIPLE FOUR LOOKS LIKE THIS:
A team of consultants was working with a nonprofit to prepare a strategic plan. One team member always had conflicts during the team’s standing meeting times, from spin class to personal appointments. Finally, the frustrated ED told the consultant, “When you constantly reschedule the pro bono team meetings as a result of personal commitments, I feel that you’re not making us a priority—and not treating us as a paying client.”
This clear and concrete feedback helped the consultant realize the impact of her behavior and turn her behavior—and ultimately the project—around.
WHEN IT'S IGNORED, PRINCIPLE FOUR LOOKS LIKE THIS:
A team of consultants from a professional services firm was working with a human services nonprofit to deliver a growth strategy. Throughout the project, the client kept saying, “Whatever you give us—it’s going to be so helpful. Anything you can suggest is perfect.” They accepted each draft without comments or requested revisions, and without direction or insight from the client, the pro bono team had no means to improve the end product.
That growth strategy was delivered—but never used.
Principle five: Learning goes both ways
A pro bono project is a partnership: you supply knowledge of your organization and field, while the pro bono consultant brings functional expertise (and a fresh perspective).
WHEN IT'S IMPLEMENTED, PRINCIPLE FIVE LOOKS LIKE THIS:
An international nonprofit that markets and sells crafts from entrepreneurs in the developing world received four months of full-time, in-country support from an employee of the shipping and fulfillment department of a U.S.-based company.
This “loaned employee” model allowed the corporate employee to gain firsthand exposure to the unique challenges of managing shipping logistics in the developing world. The nonprofit learned the best and latest in shipping and logistics strategies, and the employee brought invaluable knowledge of new markets in Africa—a growing area of interest—back to his company. Each party walked away with both individual and shared accomplishments.
WHEN IT'S IGNORED, PRINCIPLE FIVE LOOKS LIKE THIS:
A nonprofit recruited an individual pro bono consultant to facilitate a talent development session at a staff retreat. The consultant was well known for his executive coaching process, and also very busy, so he refused the nonprofit’s repeated attempts to meet before the session to discuss goals and expectations.
When the day arrived, the consultant took the nonprofit staff members through his most popular training: how to reach revenue targets through individual goal setting—not the right topic for a group focused on delivering impact, not revenue.
Because the consultant denied opportunities to learn (and because the nonprofit agreed to go ahead without these opportunities), the information was positioned entirely wrong for the audience, and the training was a failure.