Privilege comes with responsibility
While it’s tempting to follow the cliche and point our fingers at lawyers as the root of our society’s problems, there is one area in which the legal profession puts the business community to shame: pro bono service.
Lawyers have long recognized that it is a privilege to have the skills to practice their trade and with that privilege comes a responsibility to make those skills available to those who cannot afford them. The American Bar Association formally requests that all attorneys do 50 hours of pro bono service per year. It is not uncommon to have as much as 5% of a law firm’s hours dedicated to pro bono causes.
A few other professions are starting to accept this privilege and responsibility and invest in pro bono service. Public Architecture, for example, recently published a report showing that a majority of architecture firms donate more than 2% of their time to pro bono work.
This is not the case, however, for firms representing other industries, such as marketing, information technology, and human resources. Pro bono work in these industries tends to be ad hoc at best; most firms have no formal pro bono program or goals.
Inside large companies, volunteerism is still dominated by unsophisticated programs that treat employees as generic helpers rather than leveraging their professional talents to really make an impact in the community.
Nonprofits need skilled volunteers
In a recent study of Bay Area nonprofits, 56% of nonprofit leaders cited a need for more skilled volunteers. Pro bono services can address some of the most basic infrastructure needs of nonprofit organizations, needs that are essential to running an effective organization, but of which nonprofits have long been deprived because they simply cannot afford them.
Nonprofits need pro bono marketing and design professionals to develop effective marketing materials. They need management consultants to help collect and analyze internal and external data. They need human resources managers to develop performance management systems. They need engineers to implement donor and program databases. They need interior designers to create productive work environments.
We need to help these organizations help our communities, and these are services we know business professionals are capable of providing.
There are a lot of excuses one can give for not doing pro bono work, but they are just that – excuses.
The most common excuse is that people simply don’t have the time. It is true that business professionals are working more and more hours. This, however, is also true of lawyers. I know business professionals who work 60+ hours a week and still make time for pro bono work and their families. I also know professionals who work 40 hours per week and yet say they are too busy. It is an issue of priority rather than an issue of time.
The second most common excuse is that business professionals don’t know how to get involved since their companies don’t provide pro bono opportunities. This is an easy obstacle to overcome as there are many resources out there to help connect professionals with pro bono work, from VolunteerMatch to the Taproot Foundation to BoardNetUSA.
According to the 2000 Census, there are 3.1 million technology professionals, 1.4 million business planning professionals and 1.5 million marketing professionals working in the United States. If we could get even a small fraction of these professionals engaged, we could provide more than $1 billion worth of professional pro bono services to nonprofits every year. Imagine the magnified impact of thousands of nonprofits conducting outreach effectively and being able to focus on fulfilling their missions to improve our communities.
It is time that we set a higher standard for professions, companies, and individual professionals. We need to follow the lead of the legal community and realize that it is a privilege to be a paid professional. We have an opportunity to express our appreciation for those who make sacrifices to enable our success by giving back our most valuable and scarce asset – our skills and talents.