We have been toying for a number of years with the idea of creating pro bono projects that would serve more than a single client.
Salesforce.com is an example of this model. They donate their CRM platform to nonprofit organizations. That isn’t really an act of pro bono work but more like a product donation. What is pro bono about Salesforce.com’s model is that they had a team create a configuration especially for these nonprofits, which made their product easier to use increased its adoption.
In this case, to be able to design and implement this single model it probably took them about as much effort as it would for 10 of their usual implementations, but now it can be used by hundreds–or perhaps even thousands–of nonprofits. High leverage leading to high impact.
The open source movement in general falls into this category. Software developers create software that can then be used by any organization (commercial or social benefit). These are tech examples, but the same concept can apply to different functional areas.
I wrote recently about the logical marketing application (see here). Rather than doing positioning for a single nonprofit, you do meta-positioning for a category of nonprofits (e.g. homeless shelters), which allows you to create a strong unified voice and make it easier each respective organization to develop their own positioning that differentiates them from the field while also reinforcing the meta-positioning.
This could also be done in HR by creating generic systems for recruitment, performance management and other key functions that get an organization 80% of the way to the goal. A more complex HR version might be the creation of a unified pro bono recruitment services. Such a service would centralize and qualify candidates for nonprofits that could operate in a handful of key roles. This would essentially leverage the skills and capacity of a search firm but by working with dozens of clients the centralized function would make sure the right fit was happening across the entire network. Similarly, an HR department could create a training program on key skills, like management, for the employees of all their nonprofit grantees.
On the Strategic Management side of the equation, you could do meta-market research, which would support the strategic planning for a whole category of nonprofits so that they don’t need to each do it on their own. Bridgespan does some of this work now, but it is still very macro (across a wide range of nonprofits). Instead, imagine an annual report on the homeless services providers that speaks to different funding models, staffing models, program approaches, metrics used and other key research. Few nonprofits can afford to do such extensive research, which when conducted on a national scale can really identify powerful trends and best practices. Such research and reporting could be done for a dozen different types of common nonprofits.
While there is a need for custom pro bono work for each nonprofit, all pro bono work would be more efficient and effective if companies and professional services firms could take on some of these multi-client projects that would raise the collective bar. This could be combined with the “Canary in the Coal Mine” concept to become a powerful lobbying tool.