Pro Bono History

Pro bono service is the donation of professional services to social change organizations. It includes everything from legal to marketing to strategic planning to human resources services. It has been a quiet partner in many of the key social movements in our nation’s last 75 years.


In 1942, the Ad Council was born and with it, the field of public service advertising. The Ad Council was founded as a nonprofit organization marshaling pro bono talent from advertising and communications industries to deliver critical messages to the American public. Their campaigns have created some of the most identified messages of the last 100 years from “Loose Lips Sink Ships” and Smokey Bear's “Only You Can Prevent Forest Fires” to the iconic “Friends Don’t Let Friends Drive Drunk.” Ad Council slogans are woven into the very fabric of American Culture.


Twenty years after the founding of the Ad Council, President John F. Kennedy urged lawyers to use their skills to fight the battle for civil rights in the courtroom. He created The Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, dedicated to upholding civil rights protections by harnessing the power of private attorneys and firms pro bono, as well as conducting advocacy and educating the public. This institution played a vital role fighting on behalf of people who faced discrimination and opened law centers staffed by top lawyers from top law firms to work pro bono in the South. In the 1970s and 1980s their work became commonplace nationwide, on issues ranging from school desegregation to employment discrimination. "Doing it pro bono" is now an integral part of what it means to be a legal professional in this country - and part of being a valued member of the legal community.

Today, the pro bono movement extends beyond these particular professions and associations. It has nonprofit and business professionals from many different sectors working together, in mutual respect for their talents and time. And while pro bono may seem like just another form of corporate volunteering, it is fundamentally unlike traditional volunteering in the level of involvement, shared vision, and mutual collaboration that it embodies.


In 2001, the Taproot Foundation was founded to build on these historic efforts to make the pro bono service ethic part of every business profession and ensure all nonprofits have access to the professional talent they need to serve our communities and advance our collective progress.

Our groundbreaking Service Grant program demonstrated the ability for pro bono service to bridge into the mainstream business community and deliver reliable results for hundreds of nonprofits across the country. It delivered services across a wide spectrum of functions from finance to technology, clearly expanding beyond the traditional advertising and legal precedents. In 2007, the program was noted as our nation’s largest nonprofit consulting firm.


To expand pro bono service beyond the Service Grant program, in 2008 Taproot expanded its efforts to become the leading national advocate for pro bono service. Inspired by President Kennedy, Taproot’s founder Aaron Hurst lobbied the President to create a parallel challenge to the business community to use their skills to help the nation in a time of critical need. The result was the White House campaign – Billion + Change.


Pro bono service is rapidly gaining traction in the professions. The AIGA (professional association for design) Pro Bono Design Program recently challenged designers to devote 5% billable hours to service and American Institute of Architects in 2011 integrated pro bono into its code of service. 80% of top business schools engage students in supporting pro bono.


Today, over two hundred companies and over $2 billion in corporate pro bono resources have been pledged to the Billion + Change campaign. To further advance the marketplace, Taproot has partnered with the Committee Encouraging Corporate Philanthropy (CECP) to create industry standards and benchmarking for pro bono service. 30% of companies now report that they offer pro bono opportunities to employees.

With the growing confidence and interest in pro bono service, new pro bono providers are emerging quickly. These range from formal corporate programs (over 30 of which have been designed in partnership with Taproot) to new standalone providers worldwide to traditional volunteerism and capacity building programs expanding into pro bono service.

Most recently, the technology community has begun to embrace the power of pro bono. LinkedIn, the largest professional network in the world, has made pro bono their core social strategy and is working closely with Taproot to realize it. Smaller tech startups have also launched in the last two years (e.g. Catchafire and to address niche needs in the marketplace.

The largest institutional source of pro bono is professional services firms (e.g. consulting firms, design firms, etc.). Bain & Co., for example, delivered $40 million in pro bono in 2011. Companies, however, are quickly entering the market inspired by the success of their peers and being called to service by Billion + Change.

While the supply of pro bono services and programs is rapidly growing, the need in the nonprofit sector remains significant.

Human resources30%35%
Financial and administrative support29%28%
Financial advisory or consulting27%43%
Information technology27%37%
Organizational design or coaching26%45%
Board member or executive search20%46%

Source: FTI Consulting and the Taproot Foundation, “Nonprofit Survey: Leveraging Pro Bono Resources” (unpublished data, 2011).

Nonprofits report that their biggest barriers to use pro bono are scoping, securing, and managing projects: 73% would seek more pro bono help if they could better translate organizational challenges into specific projects; 65% don’t know where to find high quality pro bono resources, 58% need timeline management, 42% need project scoping, and 26% don’t think they have staff expertise to manage pro bono.