Revised with new information as of April
Pro Bono / In-Kind / Donated Services
for Mission-Based Organizations
When, Why & How?
There are all sorts of professionals who want to donate their services --
web design, graphic design, human resources expertise, legal advice,
editing, research, and so forth -- to mission-based organizations
(nonprofits, non-governmental organizations, schools, etc.). And there are
all sorts of nonprofits and NGOs who would like to attract such donated
But too often, there's a disconnect, and misunderstandings and
miscommunications and unrealistic expectations lead to missed
opportunities and frustrating experiences for both the people who want to
volunteer and the organizations that wanted to involve them.
It doesn't have to be this way!
the current situation
Most for-profit/corporate folks don't think strategically about their
pro bono work, as in setting criteria for an organization they would
assist, the number of organizations they want to assist or the amount of
work they want to undertake in a year, etc. Most for-profit folks choose a
pro bono gig because the timing happens to be right for such, the
organization approached them personally, and the organization/cause is
already one the for-profit person/consultant is personally drawn to.
Most mission-based agencies don't approach businesses or consultants for
pro bono work based on the benefits to the for-profit person or
company; instead, nopnrofits focus primarily on the amount of help they
think they need. Instead of creating an opportunity that sounds appealing
to potential volunteers (because that's what you are when you donate your
services - a volunteer), nonprofits often issue a plea that can sound...
desperate. And that's not usually appealing to potential pro bono
benefits of donating services
There are a number of benefits to a consultant or business to take on
pro bono work:
How much of donated work can a consultant or business deduct from taxes?
None. There are some tax credits volunteers can take relating to expenses
incurred during pro bono work, however. See Tax
Credits for Volunteering Costs for more information.
- it can offer opportunities to apply skills that paid jobs don't
- it can offer greater exposure of a consultant or business's work
- it can increase the amount and quality of portfolio material to show
off to potential paying clients
- it can lead to paid gigs
- it can be a refreshing, fun, enlightening change for employees from
their usual focus. For instance, a software training company hosting a
training workshop for teen agers.
- it can offer experience in and exposure to a whole new sector -- the
mission-based or nonprofit sector -- which has knowledge, skills,
work/management styles and resources that can be applied to the
for-profit sector (some businesses use employee volunteering as a way to
allow employees to develop certain skills relating to professional
- it can demonstrate a consultant's commitment to the community, which
many people take into consideration when choosing with whom they are
going to do business.
Hey, for-profits: think strategically!
Find more tips for working with nonprofit organizations at Dos
and Don'ts for Technical Assistance Volunteers, a document to help
those people providing legal, computer, human resources, marketing, or other
expertise to mission-based organizations.
- Think about WHY you or your company wants to provide donated
services. It can be all or just a few or even just one of the reasons
already mentioned, but it should be defined from the very beginning, and
communicated to mission-based organizations you may assist. Ask yourself
or your staff this question: "No matter what else results, the most
important thing for me/us that will happen because of this donated
- What type of service do you want to provide? What type of service do
you NOT want to provide? The more specific you can be about the type of
work you do and don't want to donate, the more likely that you will find
the right volunteering opportunity for you or your company (yes, that's
right, pro bono service means volunteering!).
- Set parameters for your donated services! Do you want to help one
organization, or a group of organizations? Do you want to help on a
variety of projects throughout the year, or just one big project during
a select period? How many hours a week will each staff member be
permitted/encouraged to donate?
- Some companies or consultants pick a particular kind of nonprofit to
assist: organizations that are focused primarily on preserving or
restoring the natural environment, on the arts, on youth, on seniors, on
people with disabilities, on people in a particular geographic area.
Maybe your company will want to rotate its focus each year, or stick to
just one. But this is another point to consider and define before you
start looking for a pro bono opportunity.
- What should the qualities of the nonprofit you assist be? Cultures
vary from nonprofit to nonprofit. Think about the kind of culture you
want to work with, that would be compatible with your own. One that is
open to change and innovation? One that believes that computer
technology is a fundamental element of effective service delivery? One
that is focused on team decision-making? One with strong leadership? One
where you will work with several staff members, or just one?
- How will you identify nonprofits to assist? Write up a formal, one
page description of the kind of pro bono experience you are looking for,
using the aforementioned criteria (the kind of services, the kind of
agency, etc.). Set up a meeting with your nearest volunteer center (the
Points of Light Foundation web
site can show you where that is), or with your nearest nonprofit
development center (your nearest United Way central office can tell you
where that is), and show them the description of the project you are
looking for. These organizations can help match you to the right local
agency for your donated services. Also ask within your employee ranks --
perhaps they are already associated with a nonprofit as a volunteer that
would meet your criteria. If you are interested in helping organizations
that help the developing world, the Online
Volunteering service, managed by the United
Nations Volunteers program, is an excellent resource.
But, again, have a written proposal for pro bono services.
It will make it much easier to say "no" to nonprofits who solicit your
assistance but who aren't what you are looking for.
- The mission-based sector is NOT the same as the for-profit sector!
Just because something works in the business world does not mean it will
work -- or is even appropriate -- for the mission-based sector. The
nonprofit sector encompasses important, unique expertise and resources;
pro bono experiences is an opportunity for for-profit folks to learn
about the vital work that nonprofit organizations undertake, and learn
about approaches that might work back in the for-profit world.
The first thing that businesses can do to help is ASK what is
needed, not assume they already know.
- Don't be offended if a nonprofit declines your offer of donated
services. A volunteer manager on to CYBERVPM
cautioned, "It's a common problem that well-intentioned, but frankly
ignorantly conceived assistance actually makes the lives of the
(nonprofit) staff more difficult and hinders our ability to do work that
corresponds with our mission. (Often) we're so darn busy being grateful
for something that isn't inherently helpful. The reward is more in the
doing, so finding something that's inherently a benefit means working
with the agency in question and carefully designing and planning a
response that is consistent with the needs."
- Set a start date and an END date for each pro bono project. It's a
good idea to have a written contract with the agency outlining
deadlines and everyone's expectations for each project involving
your donated services, just as you would for a projects for your paid
- Many nonprofits become frustrated with companies or consultants
providing donated services because the for-profit side feels that the
nonprofit should be satisfied with whatever service is provided,
whenever it is provided. "After all, it's FREE." This is an unhealthy
and potentially disastrous attitude. Treat the organization you are
assisting as a customer, just like your paying customers. Their
deadlines and expectations are just as real as your paying customers.
They drive the process, not you. If this is not something your
organization is comfortable with, forget donating services -- look into
more simple group volunteering (like a beach cleanup or something).
I worked at a theater company where a very high profile and
well-respected design firm produced most of our show's logos (that
went on the posters, the cover of the program, etc.). About half the
time, we loved the designs outright, but the other times, we either
wanted adjustments, or, the designs just weren't what we
wanted/needed. But when we asked for something else, the designers
were beyond miffed, because, since it was free, they felt we should
"just take it." It prompted me, at a later job, to put in certain
criteria re: working with pro bono consultants (there still had to be
a written contract; there had to be an "end" date for services, at
which time we'd negotiate renewal; and so forth). It seemed to really
change the attitude of those providing pro bono consultants, as well
as those working with such, to know that there would still be
performance measures and written agreements. It created a much more
satisfying experience for everyone, I think.
Another example, this one from Tony
One time in particular, a wonderful group of creative folks
at a local agency had been at work for weeks with a "pro bono" project
to give us a new annual fund slogan and logo. Time and again we
politely asked for a "peek" or two at what they were doing. Bless
them, but they were so excited about the project that they wanted to
"surprise" us at the end of their work. Sure enough, it finally came
to the "Ta Da" presentation day, and sure enough, there was a great
"surprise" --- that the finished work was totally unacceptable.
Because we had no on-going evaluation, they unfortunately entirely
missed the point of our campaign. They meant well, but it simply did
not work. We felt badly about it and they were upset and disappointed.
- Most organizations are looking for quality, not quantity. For
instance, in a volunteer recruitment campaign, the goal is to recruit as
many quality, appropriate, diverse volunteers as possible; not to have
thousands of people visit a web site every day. In a major fund raising
campaign, the mission is to raise the most money from the fewest sources
in the least amount of time; it's not to create a "brand" or market an
"idea" to the entire community.
- Is this project really going to be completely free for the nonprofit
organization? Tony Poderis
"Pro bono" almost always solely involves the contribution
of creative time and talent of the agency's professionals. It rarely
--- if ever --- accounts for other charges they incur from outside the
firm for services they do for you (the nonprofit), but which they do
not have "in-house," such as the taking of photographs, video,
printing, type-setting, page-making, etc., etc. Oftentimes those
charges are later unexpectedly presented to the recipient charity for
the charity to pay --- and those expenses can be significantly high.
You must have a written understanding up-front regarding such outside
Make certain you have a written agreement to cover all the
eventualities of donated work --- and they are many.
- As mentioned earlier, a nonprofit's deadlines and expectations are
just as real as your paying customers. Often, a company puts the pro
bono work at the bottom of the priority list, leaving the nonprofit in
seemingly endless limbo and causing some of their own projects to come
to a standstill. Most nonprofits understand that, in times of crisis,
they are not going to be your priority. But patience only lasts so long.
If you can't meet the very real deadlines associated with pro bono
services, then donating services is NOT something you should do.
- What will be the process for the organization you assist to evaluate
your work and communicate to you their evaluation? How will you measure
success regarding your donated services? Include this in the contract
with the organization. Hearing an evaluation of your donated service is
part of a quality volunteering experience.
- Think about how you want the nonprofit or NGO to recognize you or
your company for donated services, and note this in the contract you
create for the pro bono services. Do you want:
- Your company logo, with a link, on the organization's web site?
- A whole page on the web site or in the organization's newsletter
detailing your contributions?
- A listing in the organization's annual report?
- A banner in the organization's lobby?
- A letter or certificate of appreciation?
Be very clear about your expectations for recognition, and be open
to negotiation; for instance, many nonprofits have policies not to
post other organization's logos or links to other organization's on
their home page (most for-profit companies have this same policy).
- As mentioned earlier, a benefit of providing donated service is that
it can increase the amount and quality of portfolio material to show off
to potential paying clients. And with this in mind, Marla
Erwin of Ten Sharp Design notes:
For this reason, volunteering an hour a week of maintenance
work is actually LESS appealing to most freelancers than committing a
20-hour-a week redesign project. A substantial redesign can boost
their portfolio and help them get new gigs, but volunteering to fix
broken links doesn't bring in new clients.
A lot of companies who need pro bono work will divide the work
into tiny pieces, thinking it's easier to ask for small things from
10 people. In the end, though, they would often be better off asking
one person to do the work start-to-finish. Volunteers are more
likely to include a maintenance period with their design/dev work
than to take the maintenance piece alone.
So to answer the original question, I rate pro bono work on three
1. Do I have the time and energy to take this on now?
2. Is this a cause/company/organization I want to support?
3. Will there be some benefit to me, such as a strong portfolio
piece, learning new skills, publicity, networking, or just having
- Businesses should reflect and assess their employee volunteering
activities each year, if not after each donated service stint is
completed. Otherwise, you will never know the impact your pro bono
activities are having.
It doesn't have to be a simple process to gather employee feedback
about their volunteering activities on behalf of the company; it can
be as simple as via a survey, or by having employees simply sit around
during lunch and talk about their experiences while someone records
their input in some way. Questions to spur discussion could include:
What did employees learn as a result of their donated service
activities? What impact on the nonprofit's mission do they think
resulted from their donated services? Did the volunteering experiences
help them in their jobs in some way and, if so, how? What did they
enjoy about them? What did they dislike about them? What were the
qualities of a positive experience? Of a negative experience? What did
they wish they had known before engaging in the activities? How would
they like the next round of pro bono activities to be different?
a word to nonprofits/charities
Mostly, we've been addressing for-profits. But, nonprofits, you need to
think about your responsibilities too!
If you are looking for pro bono assistance, don't just issue a plea for
help; instead, write a description of your needs that highlights what
about this pro bono assignment would be interesting, fun, and/or
beneficial to the for-profit person or company.
People providing pro bono services are volunteers -- treat them as such.
They should receive at least the same recognition -- pins, mugs,
certificates, invitations, newsletters, etc. -- as your other volunteers.
They should hear how their contributions impact your organization and
those it serves. And they should be told thank you, again and again.
It may not always be appropriate to say yes to donated services.
In addition to ethical situations (such as how the company or consultant
is associated with your staff or board), the services offered may not be
what your nonprofit wants or needs. There may be large costs to your
agency to maintain or support whatever the business or consultant creates
for your organization. Or what they are proposing may not fit with your
When a company or consultant approaches your organization about donating
a service, do some internal evaluation about what is being proposed, and
what you think your own staff and resource commitment will be to make the
pro bono service something that serves your mission.
Always treat the company or consultant with the utmost professionalism.
Provide them with information and feedback at all stages clearly and
quickly. If, in the beginning, the company or consultant doesn't talk
about creating a contract for this project, then you bring it up and make
sure it happens.
How can you find pro bono assistance? In addition to the traditional
channels for volunteer recruitment (contacting your local volunteer
center, circulating opportunities among existing volunteers, donors, board
members and other supporters), try target-marketing
volunteer recruitment to specific groups via the Internet.
- Feeling Good About Doing Good,
from Contract Professional magazine. "Contractors who donate their IT
talents to help others find they receive more than 'thank yous' in
return -- they're developing new skills, making friends, and gaining
personal satisfaction. "
- The Pitfalls of Having a Program Sponsor
(and suggestions for mission-based organizations on how to avoid them)
For-profit companies, particularly large corporations, often sponsor
specific programs at mission-based organizations (non-profit
organizations, non-governmental organizations/NGOs, civil society,
school, etc.), providing funding, donated staff time, and in-kind
equipment and services to help launch and maintain a program. In most
ways, this is a blessing for the mission-based organization. But there
are often hidden costs that lead to frustrations for everyone involved.
This is a list of some of those hidden costs,
and ways they can be avoided.
- Finding a Computer/Network
Consultant (paid or volunteer)
Staff at mission-based organizations (nonprofits, non-governmental
organizations/NGOs, civil society organizations, and public sector
agencies) often have to rely on consultants, either paid or volunteer,
for expertise in computer hardware, software and networks. Staff may
feel unable to understand, question nor challenge whatever that
consultant recommends. What can mission-based organizations do to
recruit the "right" consultant for "tech" related issues, one that will
not make them feel out-of-the-loop or out-of-control when it comes to
- Short-term Assignments for Tech
There are a variety of ways for mission-based organizations to involve
volunteers to help with short-term projects relating to
computers and the Internet, and short-term assignments are what are
sought after most by potential "tech" volunteers. But there is a
disconnect: most organizations have trouble identifying such short-term
projects. This is a list of short-term projects for "tech" volunteers --
assignments that might takes days, weeks or just a couple of months to
- One(-ish) Day "Tech" Activities for
Volunteers are getting together for intense, one-day events, or events
of just a few days, to build web pages, to write code, to edit Wikipedia
pages, and more. These are gatherings of onsite volunteers, where
everyone is in one location, together, to do an online-related project
in one day, or a few days. It's a form of episodic volunteering, because
volunteers don't have to make an ongoing commitment - they can come to
the event, contribute their services, and then leave and never volunteer
again. Because computers are involved, these events are sometimes called
hackathons, even if coding isn't involved. This page provides advice on
how to put together a one-day event, or just-a-few-days-of activity, for
a group of tech volunteers onsite, working together, for a nonprofit,
non-governmental organization (NGO), community-focused government
program, school or other mission-based organization - or association of
- Creating One-Time, Short-Term Group
Details on not just what groups of volunteers can do in a two-hour,
half-day or all-day event, but also just how much an organization or
program will need to do to prepare a site for group volunteering. It's
an expensive, time-consuming endeavor - are you ready? Is it worth it?
- Caution! Re: Accepting
"Free" computers and software are sometimes not worth the price. Before
your organization says yes to any technology-related donation, no matter
how good the deal sounds or how great the company donating is, please
read this tip sheet.
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