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Here’s What Your Volunteer Program Needs to Know About Pro Bono

Does your organization engage pro bono and skilled volunteers?

Pro bono or skilled volunteers can provide valuable services to your community that clients would otherwise pay for. When managed effectively, pro bono services can be highly impactful, resulting in a program that benefits all stakeholders.

So, whether you’re currently coordinating pro bono services, or looking to recruit skilled volunteers, here’s everything your community organization needs to know.

Article Contents:

 

What is Pro Bono Service?

Pro bono is derived from the Latin phrase pro bono publico, meaning “for the public good.” Pro bono is professional or skilled work donated to those in need. While pro bono often involves legal services, the term can also refer to any professional work provided without charge. The term “skilled volunteers” may also refer to individuals who provide pro bono services.

How Does Pro Bono Work?

In order for pro bono and skilled volunteerism to work, programs should be well supported and intentional. You’ll need a system for recruiting and managing skilled volunteers and measuring the impact of their efforts.

Successful pro bono programs require a collaborative effort between corporate programs or professional associations and community organizations. These partnerships benefit all players: Nonprofits build capacity, skilled volunteers give back to their communities in a highly impactful way, and businesses deliver on their corporate social responsibility promises.

What is the role of community organizations in supporting pro bono work?

Pro bono work is most effective when coordinated by a community organization or nonprofit that specializes in matching volunteers with community projects. Organizations like yours have a deep understanding of community and client needs and established programming that works to address these needs.

Pro bono work should serve community members and nonprofit clients or the nonprofits themselves (you can also learn more about nonprofit internships here). In the same way you would connect traditional volunteers with opportunities to serve communities, you can also direct pro bono service providers with clients in need.

Pro Bono Service vs. Volunteering: What's the Difference?

While pro bono work occurs on a voluntary basis, the way you recruit and manage pro bono service providers may differ from how you engage volunteers. What’s more, the IRS treats pro bono services and volunteer work differently, making understanding this distinction even more important.

The IRS uses separate guidelines to govern how costs and expenses are deducted. The main difference between pro bono and volunteer work is that pro bono services are typically offered as professional services. Therefore, some of the expenses of providing pro bono services can be deducted on business tax returns. You can read more about the specificities of pro bono vs. volunteer tax deductions here.

This isn’t to say that your traditional volunteers aren’t skilled. In fact, many of your volunteers possess invaluable expertise that you can certainly tap into. When an individual offers pro bono services, they’re typically offering a professional service that often comes along with experience in a specific field, as well as certifications that relate directly to the project or service your organization provides its clients.

Plus, many of your volunteers may not want to spend their free time volunteering their professional experience. For some, volunteering is a place to learn new soft and hard skills, socialize, and contribute to their communities in a stress-free environment.  

Another key difference is that pro bono and skills-based projects tend to have a time frame. You’ll typically engage pro bono volunteers for a dedicated project with a beginning and end date. On the other hand, other volunteers can contribute their time in a variety of capacities, from microvolunteering opportunities to recurring shifts throughout the year.

Pro Bono Service Examples

What pro bono services might volunteers provide? Here are a few examples of the most common pro bono services:

  • Legal advice and services
  • Tax preparation
  • Free physician visits or medical services
  • Professional mentorship

 

Does Your Organization Need Pro Bono Volunteers?

Traditional volunteers help your organization solve challenges in your community by offering time and people-power. But some initiatives may require specific expertise to deliver highly impactful services.

The following actions can help you determine whether your organization is in the market for pro bono and skilled volunteers:

Determine Organizational Gaps

In order to manage pro bono volunteers most effectively, you’ll need to understand how they fit into your organization and help to advance your mission.

You’ll want to determine your organization’s needs as well as gaps in service in your community. Then, you’ll need to flesh out how pro bono and skilled volunteers can help fill these gaps.

One way to find gaps in service is to perform a community needs assessment. A community needs assessment identifies the strengths and resources available to a community to meet the needs of community members. The outcomes of a community needs assessment guide how your organization and volunteers—including skilled volunteers—can help the community.

You can also use pro bono volunteers to address internal projects. In this case, consider interviewing your team to understand top organizational priorities, needs, and expectations for the program.

Remember that your traditional volunteer program and pro bono services should all work toward advancing your organization’s mission.

Weigh the Benefits and Costs of Managing Pro Bono Volunteers

While taking on a pro bono program has the power to build capacity, not all organizations are equipt to deploy pro bono volunteers effectively. Therefore, you’ll want to consider both the benefits and challenges of managing pro bono and skilled volunteers.

 Benefits of Pro Bono Volunteers for Nonprofits:

  • Pro bono volunteers are highly skilled. Your organization can tap into the expertise of professionals to build capacity and better serve clients.
  • Pro bono volunteers perform expensive work for free. In fact, the average impact value of a pro bono volunteer is $150/hour!
  • Pro bono volunteers can offer new insight. Pro bono work is carried out on a consultative basis. When you open your organization to pro bono volunteers, you’re welcoming input from experts in their field.

Challenges of Pro Bono Volunteers for Nonprofits:

  • Pro bono volunteers typically work on fixed-term projects. Pro bono volunteers may not provide the sustained solution that your organization needs to deliver consistent programming.
  • The cost of recruiting pro bono and skilled volunteers is higher than traditional volunteers. They require extensive vetting and take more time to recruit since you cannot apply broad recruitment techniques you’d use for general volunteer roles.  
  • Some organizations aren’t ready for outside decision-making. Yes, pro bono volunteers are free consultants. But are all members of your organization willing to receive this level of input (including the board and top executives)? You’ll have to decide the extent of consultation all members are looking for.

There is a common misconception that nonprofits are lacking professional skills and therefore need to take on pro bono work to fill these gaps. By prioritizing business skills over others, we forget that nonprofit professionals have a wealth of soft and hard expertise necessary for driving change.

Before you decide to take on pro bono volunteers, assess the gaps in your organization and weigh the benefits and costs of maintaining a pro bono volunteer program.

Best Practices for Managing Pro Bono and Skilled Volunteers

If you want to manage your pro bono program effectively, you’ll need a plan for matching skilled volunteers with a project and then supporting these volunteers throughout.

Here are some best practices for recruiting and managing skilled volunteers:

Leverage Partnerships and Networks

Forming partnerships with professional organizations is key to sourcing the best pro bono volunteers for your needs.

Many nonprofits assume they need to rely solely on corporate partners to recruit pro bono and skilled volunteers. While corporate partnerships are certainly valuable assets, there are plenty of other organizations that can supply a range of expertise:

  • Local Businesses
  • State Bar Associations
  • Trade Unions
  • Campuses (University Faculty)
  • Local Government

How to Source Partnerships:

  1. Do your research. Look for organizations that already have a presence in your community. These organizations can even include branches of larger organizations, local sports teams, and corporations headquartered in your area.
  2. Strive for relevance. Source partners whose resources, skills, and interests make sense for your program and the project you have in mind.
  3. Utilize personal connections. Board members, staff, and other stakeholders may have connections to organizations in your community. Don’t be afraid to ask around for referrals.
  4. Discuss values. Once you’ve identified potential partners, dig deeper to understand culture and values. You may want to set up an initial phone call with representatives to learn more before committing to a more formal meeting.

 

Recruit Virtual and Remote Volunteers

Expand your possibilities by offering remote work for pro bono and skilled volunteers.

Over the past few years, it’s become clear that virtual volunteers are essential to the sustainability of nonprofits. Even if your organization has welcomed volunteers back in person there are countless benefits of leveraging virtual volunteerism.

Offering virtual and remote opportunities for pro bono volunteers increases the size of your organization’s volunteer pool and your chances of connecting with individuals who are passionate about your mission.

Implement a System for Vetting Pro Bono Volunteers

Vetting each pro bono and skilled volunteer is essential to safeguarding your organization. The skilled volunteer vetting process should look something like this:

  • Interview and evaluate candidates. You’ll want to assess whether prospects will fit into the fabric of your organization. In addition to assessing their professional skills, you’ll also want to understand what they value and how they operate. You may inquire about their communication style and expectations for the experience.
  • Collect and review certificates and other qualifying documents. You’ll need to keep these documents on hand and organized. Many professional certifications eventually expire, so consider implementing a volunteer management system that automatically notifies you and the volunteer when their certifications need to be renewed and updated.
  • Complete necessary background checks. Background checks are a common way to vet incoming volunteers and safeguard your organization. This step in the process can take time. We recommend you look for a management tool that integrates background checks for quicker, more streamlined onboarding.
  • Match volunteers with the right project. Pair successful candidates with the project that suits your needs and their skillset. This step should be included in the vetting process, so you know that you’re getting the right volunteers from the outset.

 

Keep Volunteers Engaged in Your Organization

Just because the project is over, doesn’t mean pro bono volunteers can’t commit to your cause long-term. Put in place a system for converting pro bono participants into long-term volunteers and donors.

Set up a communication process in which you regularly reach out to participants with new projects, updates on your organization’s goals, and how their efforts are making a difference in your community. Many nonprofits choose to send monthly email newsletters to keep volunteers engaged throughout the year. You may even consider asking your pro bono volunteers to sign up for text alerts that inform them about upcoming opportunities based on their preferences.

Invest in Technology

Volunteer management software can not only help you manage your traditional volunteers, but it can also help you connect pro bono service providers with skilled positions.

Volunteer management software serves as both your volunteer-facing platform and behind-the-scenes database that allows you to post opportunities, manage applicants, house volunteer information (including contact details, preferences, and certifications), and simplify data collection in one centralized system. Storing your data in an online database will also improve the efficiency of your data management, the grant application process, and much more!

Finally, text alerts, automated email marketing, and other communication become streamlined and efficient with an all-in-one volunteer management solution.

More Resources

Corporate Partnerships: A Guide for Nonprofits

Marketing Your Volunteer Opportunities: How to Convert Prospects Into Engaged Volunteers

How to Recruit and Manage Nonprofit Interns

20 Awesome Volunteer Recruitment Ideas

Leveraging Volunteer Interests: Best Practices for Volunteer Matching

Author: Addison Waters