By Teri Riddle

Pro Bono Work:
It’s time to press the reset button on doing good


"To be good, and to do good, is all we have to do." -John Adams

Doing good.

Over the course of the last two decades, the business world has witnessed an increasing wave of public demand for companies to take on greater social responsibility. Businesses have responded by implementing programs ranging from corporate social responsibility to corporate philanthropy to environmental accountability. Today, a new generation is driving a revived revolution in the workplace that is shifting the mindset around what it means to be successful—instead of just “doing well” in terms of profit, companies across the country and across the globe have adopted a new mantra that “doing good” is inextricably tied to “doing well.” As a case in point, there are now close to two thousand certified B Corps (“for-profit companies certified by the nonprofit B Lab that meet rigorous standards of social and environmental performance, accountability, and transparency”) worldwide, and the number of companies becoming certified is growing all the time.

Still another important way companies are demonstrating their desire to serve the greater good, and not just the bottom line, is through pro bono work. According to a recent survey by the CECP, which queried 270 publicly traded companies, more than one million hours of pro bono work were performed in 2016, up from 492,305 hours in 2013.

Based on trends like these, it is clear that there is a growing desire to contribute, give back, and make a difference in the world by sharing our talents, experience, and connections. As individuals and organizations, many of us have either volunteered or provided in-kind services to other individuals and organizations throughout the course of our lives and careers. We all engage in this exchange because there is something in it for us—whether it be to learn about a new sector, to help people we know are doing important work, or to participate with other collaborators on a project.

Look before you leap into a pro bono exchange.

But here’s the rub—frequently pro bono contracts start off on the wrong foot … often to the detriment of both participants. For those individuals or organizations that are receiving support, the mindset is often: “we are so lucky to have this person interested in our organization and we will take whatever they can give us.” For those who are giving, they may think, “This is a good cause and I will do my best to contribute what I can, when I can fit it in.”

The problem with these mindsets is that, ultimately, the quality of work suffers and the opportunity for impact is lessened. When the recipient feels indebted and the giver feels as though the project is secondary to its paid engagements, neither one will get full value from the experience—and, in fact, sometimes the recipient is left in a poorer position than when the project began.

One of the key problems with how pro bono work is perceived by the organization offering support is that these gigs often don’t get assessed using the same “go/no-go” criteria as work that is paid, and often are not afforded the same commitment or level of service. As an organization that has experience offering pro bono support, we’ve learned that we simply won’t be successful if we take on a project that does not involve financial reward and think that we will “fit it in” or “do our best” to help. Instead, as we have learned, we have to be prepared to commit to what is needed to achieve the desired outcomes, regardless of financial gain.

Take pro bono work as seriously as paid work.

Some examples of what we’ve seen happen when pro bono projects are not given enough thought and rigor are:

  • The outcomes of the project are not always fully achieved because we accept that “less than” is good enough
  • We tend to convince ourselves that what we did or what we got “is better than nothing
  • For the giver, we tend to de-prioritize non-paid work first
  • For the receiver, we don’t give candid feedback because we are not paying for the services and we feel indebted
  • We forget the age-old adage of “don’t sign up for something you cannot do well
  • Many products or services that get developed don’t get used because not enough time and attention was put into engaging the end-users


A client we recently worked with had an experience of a pro bono contract going wrong for some of the same reasons we’ve listed above. This client was a nonprofit organization that had a board member who was part of a large consulting firm. The consulting firm agreed to creating a strategic plan for the organization pro bono. The firm put together a core team for the work, made up of its junior consultants, who were being supported by the firm’s partners. In the end, it took triple the anticipated time to complete the strategic plan, given the firm’s competing priorities with its paying clients. The nonprofit felt indebted for having received “free” services, and because of this, were reluctant to ask for what they needed and to hold the firm accountable to its work plan and timeline when things were getting off-track. The final product did not meet the nonprofit’s expectations and the plan was shelved and labeled as a “failed attempt” at strategic planning. Neither the firm nor the nonprofit could claim success.

Make pro bono work mutually rewarding: four rules to follow.

As practitioners and as receivers of service, we all have to assess the benefits of spending our valuable time—that is the currency we should count first, not the money. And we want those who are receiving the benefits of work and expertise to consider the same things. Is partnering with someone who is providing a service (paid or unpaid) going to be worth our time?

As givers and receivers of pro bono service value, here are four things to consider before making a commitment:

  1. BE PURPOSEFUL: If you are providing or receiving a pro bono service, don’t do anything that does not serve your purpose—be clear about what’s in it for you. Pro bono work serves a need inside of each of us and we have to be sure that it is worth our investment.
  2. VALUE TIME: Believe you are worthy of receiving and giving the best—sometimes our “volunteer mindset” gets in the way of us asking for and getting what we need out of a pro bono partnership.
  3. HONOR PROMISES: Know that a commitment to serve and to be served is a promise—people rely on the verbal or written contracts we make, and it is too easy to fall into the trap of it “being ok” if requirements are not fully met—it’s not.
  4. TRUST YOUR INSTINCTS: Understand that doing good has ripple effects you may never see—and sometimes it is a simple as that.

About the author

Teri Riddle builds meaningful relationships to enable leaders and teams to achieve tangible results.

Related Insights

See All

Let's talk.