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Re-thinking the way we share skilled expertise: the pro bono paradox

Tuesday, May 3, 2016
Guest Writers
James Temple

For many volunteers, sharing their professional skills and experiences with a nonprofit can be a meaningful way to give back while developing important leadership capabilities. It’s also a great way to add bench strength and knowledge across sectors and expedite community impacts across the board.  

In many cases though, the application of pro bono skills can be a double-edged sword. If strong project management plans are not designed ahead of time (and in collaboration) with the nonprofit and the skilled volunteer, the experience runs the risk of creating more challenges than good.

We know that pro bono experiences create significant value (especially in the more traditional areas of legal and accounting services), but for areas outside these realms like marketing, communications, logistics or supply chain, recommendations can come with additional operational costs, especially where technical expertise may not exist in the day to day.

If expectations are not managed on the onset and a shared language between a volunteer and the nonprofit is not developed ahead of time, then project recommendations may lead to unnecessary power dynamics being created between the volunteer and the beneficiary and a ‘fix it’ approach to the pro bono experience will hinder leadership and organizational impact.

A hypothetical example might be: a group of corporate volunteers spend three days in your nonprofit office reviewing key business strategies and operational plans. The output they create is a 50 page summary document with highly complex and technical recommendations. Upon your own review, you realize that many of the suggestions can’t be implemented given the unique nature of your nonprofit’s operational environment, your current staff capabilities or the broader context to how your organization has evolved. The report becomes a dusty book on a shelf, and your staff are scrambling to keep up with the time lost to providing the skilled volunteers oversight and insights the week before.

So how do we make sure this hypothetical example remains as such? I recommend focusing on having honest conversations about talent development first, learning how people’s skills and passions can be mapped to a project at the nonprofit that will have the best possible long term impact for all involved. This is important for both the volunteer and the beneficiary. Here are two things to think about that will support a better planning paradigm, and allow nonprofit leadership teams to focus on the longer term outcomes required.

1. Shift our mindset away from transactional volunteerism to longer term strategic bench strength

We should shift the focus away from transactional experiences used as a stop gap measure to an operational issue at the nonprofit, to designing the mechanics of the pro bono experience ahead of time and defining the ways each volunteer can help to empower a nonprofit leadership team to come from a place of strength when articulating what is actually required in the long term strategy (vs. the gift of what a volunteer sees as necessary today).

Much like designing an effective job description, nonprofit leadership teams and the volunteer can set up skilled experiences in ways that deliver a strong return on impact, integrity and investment for all involved. We must be thoughtful and learn how to map key competencies and capabilities required for the nonprofit’s organizational success, and how to say ‘no’ when necessary without impacting the interest of the volunteer to continue to be engaged.  

2. Put the focus on skill development and cross-sector learning opportunities

We should also explore how a pro bono experience can be designed in ways that help to uncover new skills a volunteer might have (beyond what they do at the office day to day) and look at issues from as many angles as possible. In Volunteer Canada’s recent study Bridging the Gap, a survey of employer supported volunteers indicated that they were motivated by experiences working with nonprofits that helped them develop new skills, and some indicated they did not want to volunteer doing the same job as they do for work.

Thinking this way can help to get everyone excited about “what’s next” and ongoing engagement vs. having a one-off pro bono based experience where the recommendations become a dusty report on a shelf or the to-do list.

At the end of the day, it’s all about building effective relationships across sectors and thinking about skilled and pro bono volunteerism in a way that fosters the development of committed and effective philanthropists across the board.

About the Author

James TempleJames Temple is PwC Canada’s Chief Corporate Responsibility Officer. In this role, he oversees the actions and programs that unite the firm’s internal strategy around social and environmental responsibility, aligning each initiative to PwC’s overall business strategy in order to increase employee engagement, differentiate the brand in the marketplace and drive operational efficiencies. He’s considered one of Canada’s leading voices on corporate social innovation and speaks internationally about how businesses and communities can work together to use their skills, voices and relationships to become catalysts for change.

You can read more about PwC’s perspective on capacity building by visiting www.pwc.com/ca/capacitybuilding or learn more about the inner mechanics of nonprofits and how to fuel their operational engines by visiting www.pwc.com/ca/overhead.

Guest contributions represent the personal opinions and insights of the authors and may not reflect the views or opinions of Imagine Canada.

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Submitted by Diana Bumstead on
Great article James. How (concretely) do we build capacity so some of our non profits who are just getting by and concentrating on day to day can look at a larger picture and "longer term bench strength". What resources can we provide to achieve these ends - can our volunteer organizations in Canada work more coherently to come up with a cohesive volunteer strategy and resources..? It will be interesting to see in the next Data on Giving, Volunteering and Participating in Canada how healthy our volunteer numbers are.

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