Pro Bono / In-Kind / Donated Services for Mission-Based Organizations When, Why & How?

There are all sorts of professionals who want to donate their services -- web design, graphic design, human resources expertise, legal advice, editing, research, and so forth -- to mission-based organizations. And there are all sorts of nonprofits and NGOs who would like to attract such donated services.

But often, there's a disconnect -- misunderstandings and miscommunications and unrealistic expectations that lead to missed opportunities and frustrating experiences. It doesn't have to be this way!

The current situation

Most for-profit folks don't think strategically about their pro bono work, as in setting criteria for an organization they would assist, the number of organizations they want to assist or the amount of work they want to undertake in a year, etc. Most for-profit folks choose a pro bono gig because the timing happens to be right for such, the organization approached them personally, and the organization/cause is already one the for-profit person/consultant is personally drawn to.

Most mission-based agencies don't approach businesses or consultants for pro bono work based on the benefits to the for-profit person or company; instead, they focus primarily on why they need the help, and the amount of help they need. Instead of creating an opportunity that sounds appealing, they issue a plea that can sound... desperate.

Benefits of donating services

There are a number of benefits to a consultant or business to take on pro bono work:

  • it can offer opportunities to apply skills that paid jobs don't currently
  • it can offer greater exposure of a consultant or business's work
  • it can increase the amount and quality of portfolio material to show off to potential paying clients
  • it can lead to paid gigs
  • it can be a refreshing, fun, enlightening change for employees from their usual focus. For instance, a software training company hosting a workshop for teen agers.
  • it can offer experience in and exposure to a whole new sector -- the mission-based or nonprofit sector -- which has knowledge, skills, work/management styles and resources that can be applied to the for-profit sector (some businesses use employee volunteering as a way to allow employees to develop certain skills relating to professional development).
  • it can demonstrate a consultant's commitment to the community, which many people take into consideration when choosing with whom they are going to do business.

How much of donated work can a consultant or business deduct from taxes? None. There are some tax credits volunteers can take relating to expenses incurred during pro bono work, however. see Tax Credits for Volunteering Costs for more information.

Hey, for-profits: think strategically!


1. Think about WHY you or your company wants to provide donated services. It can be all or just a few or even just one of the reasons already mentioned, but it should be defined from the very beginning, and communicated to mission-based organizations you may assist. Ask yourself or your staff this question: "No matter what else results, the most important thing for me/us that will happen because of this donated service is..."

2. What type of service do you want to provide? What type of service do you NOT want to provide? The more specific you can be about the type of work you do and don't want to donate, the more likely that you will find the right volunteering opportunity for you or your company (yes, that's right, pro bono service means volunteering!).

3. Set parameters for your donated services! Do you want to help one organization, or a group of organizations? Do you want to help on a variety of projects throughout the year, or just one big project during a select period? How many hours a week will each staff member be permitted/encouraged to donate?

4. Some companies or consultants pick a particular kind of nonprofit to assist: organizations that are focused primarily on preserving or restoring the natural environment, on the arts, on youth, on seniors, on people with disabilities, on people in a particular geographic area. Maybe your company will want to rotate its focus each year, or stick to just one. But this is another point to consider and define before you start looking for a pro bono opportunity.

5. What should the qualities of the nonprofit you assist be? Cultures vary from nonprofit to nonprofit. Think about the kind of culture you want to work with, that would be compatible with your own. One that is open to change and innovation? One that believes that computer technology is a fundamental element of effective service delivery? One that is focused on team decision-making? One with strong leadership? One where you will work with several staff members, or just one?

6. How will you identify nonprofits to assist? Write up a formal, one page description of the kind of pro bono experience you are looking for, using the aforementioned criteria (the kind of services, the kind of agency, etc.). Set up a meeting with your nearest volunteer center (the Points of Light Foundation web site can show you where that is), or with your nearest nonprofit development center (your nearest United Way central office can tell you where that is), and show them the description of the project you are looking for. These organizations can help match you to the right agency for your donated services. Also ask within your employee ranks -- perhaps they are already associated with a nonprofit as a volunteer that would meet your criteria. But, again, have a written proposal for pro bono services. It will make it much easier to say "no" to nonprofits who solicit your assistance but who aren't what you are looking for.

7. The mission-based sector is NOT the same as the for-profit sector! Just because something works in the business world does not mean it will work -- or is even appropriate -- for the mission-based sector. The nonprofit sector encompasses important, unique expertise and resources; pro bono experiences is an opportunity for for-profit folks to learn about the vital work that nonprofit organizations undertake, and learn about approaches that might work back in the for-profit world. The first thing that businesses can do to help is ASK what is needed, not assume they already know.

8. Don't be offended if a nonprofit declines your offer of donated services. A volunteer manager on to CYBERVPM cautioned, "It's a common problem that well-intentioned, but frankly ignorantly conceived assistance actually makes the lives of the (nonprofit) staff more difficult and hinders our ability to do work that corresponds with our mission. (Often) we're so darn busy being grateful for something that isn't inherently helpful. The reward is more in the doing, so finding something that's inherently a benefit means working with the agency in question and carefully designing and planning a response that is consistent with the needs."

9. Set a start date and an END date for each pro bono project. It's a good idea to have a written contract with the agency outlining deadlines and everyone's expectations for each project involving your donated services, just as you would for a projects for your paid services.

10. Many nonprofits become frustrated with companies or consultants providing donated services because the for-profit side feels that the nonprofit should be satisfied with whatever service is provided, whenever it is provided. "After all, it's FREE." This is an unhealthy and potentially disastrous attitude. Treat the organization you are assisting as a customer, just like your paying customers. Their deadlines and expectations are just as real as your paying customers. They drive the process, not you. If this is not something your organization is comfortable with, forget donating services -- look into more simple group volunteering (like a beach cleanup or something). An example:

I worked at a theater company where a very high profile and well-respected design firm produced most of our show's logos (that went on the posters, the cover of the program, etc.). About half the time, we loved the designs outright, but the other times, we either wanted adjustments, or, the designs just weren't what we wanted/needed. But when we asked for something else, the designers were beyond miffed, because, since it was free, they felt we should "just take it." It prompted me, at a later job, to put in certain criteria re: working with pro bono consultants (there still had to be a written contract; there had to be an "end" date for services, at which time we'd negotiate renewal; and so forth). It seemed to really change the attitude of those providing pro bono consultants, as well as those working with such, to know that there would still be performance measures and written agreements. It created a much more satisfying experience for everyone, I think.

Another example, this one from Tony Poderis:


One time in particular, a wonderful group of creative folks at a local agency had been at work for weeks with a "pro bono" project to give us a new annual fund slogan and logo. Time and again we politely asked for a "peek" or two at what they were doing. Bless them, but they were so excited about the project that they wanted to "surprise" us at the end of their work. Sure enough, it finally came to the "Ta Da" presentation day, and sure enough, there was a great "surprise" --- that the finished work was totally unacceptable. Because we had no on-going evaluation, they unfortunately entirely missed the point of our campaign. They meant well, but it simply did not work. We felt badly about it and they were upset and disappointed.


11. Most organizations are looking for quality, not quantity. For instance, in a volunteer recruitment campaign, the goal is to recruit as many quality, appropriate, diverse volunteers as possible; not to have thousands of people visit a web site every day. In a major fund raising campaign, the mission is to raise the most money from the fewest sources in the least amount of time; it's not to create a "brand" or market an "idea" to the entire community.

12. Is this project really going to be completely free for the nonprofit organization? Tony Poderis cautions:


"Pro bono" almost always solely involves the contribution of creative time and talent of the agency's professionals. It rarely --- if ever --- accounts for other charges they incur from outside the firm for services they do for you (the nonprofit), but which they do not have "in-house," such as the taking of photographs, video, printing, type-setting, page-making, etc., etc. Oftentimes those charges are later unexpectedly presented to the recipient charity for the charity to pay --- and those expenses can be significantly high. You must have a written understanding up-front regarding such outside services. Make certain you have a written agreement to cover all the eventualities of donated work --- and they are many.


13. As mentioned earlier, a nonprofit's deadlines and expectations are just as real as your paying customers. Often, a company puts the pro bono work at the bottom of the priority list, leaving the nonprofit in seemingly endless limbo and causing some of their own projects to come to a standstill. Most nonprofits understand that, in times of crisis, they are not going to be your priority. But patience only lasts so long. If you can't meet the very real deadlines associated with pro bono services, then donating services is NOT something you should do.

14. What will be the process for the organization you assist to evaluate your work and communicate to you their evaluation? How will you measure success regarding your donated services? Include this in the contract with the organization. Hearing an evaluation of your donated service is part of a quality volunteering experience.

15. Think about how you want the nonprofit or NGO to recognize you or your company for donated services, and note this in the contract you create for the pro bono services. Do you want:

  • Your company logo, with a link, on the organization's web site?
  • A whole page on the web site or in the organization's newsletter detailing your contributions?
  • A listing in the organization's annual report?
  • A banner in the organization's lobby?
  • A letter or certificate of appreciation? Be very clear about your expectations for recognition, and be open to negotiation; for instance, many nonprofits have policies not to post other organization's logos or links to other organization's on their home page (most for-profit companies have this same policy).

16. As mentioned earlier, a benefit of providing donated service is that it can increase the amount and quality of portfolio material to show off to potential paying clients. And with this in mind, Marla Erwin of Ten Sharp Design notes:

For this reason, volunteering an hour a week of maintenance work is actually LESS appealing to most freelancers than commiting a 20-hour-a week redesign project. A substantial redesign can boost their portfolio and help them get new gigs, but volunteering to fix broken links doesn't bring in new clients. A lot of companies who need pro bono work will divide the work into tiny pieces, thinking it's easier to ask for small things from 10 people. In the end, though, they would often be better off asking one person to do the work start-to-finish. Volunteers are more likely to include a maintenance period with their design/dev work than to take the maintenance piece alone. So to answer the original question, I rate pro bono work on three scales: 1. Do I have the time and energy to take this on now? 2. Is this a cause/company/organization I want to support? 3. Will there be some benefit to me, such as a strong portfolio piece, learning new skills, publicity, networking, or just having fun?

17. Businesses should reflect and assess their employee volunteering activities each year, if not after each donated service stint is completed. Otherwise, you will never know the impact your pro bono activities are having. It doesn't have to be a simple process to gather employee feedback about their volunteering activities on behalf of the company; it can be as simple as via a survey, or by having employees simply sit around during lunch and talk about their experiences while someone records their input in some way. Questions to spur discussion could include: What did employees learn as a result of their donated service activities? What impact on the nonprofit's mission do they think resulted from their donated services? Did the volunteering experiences help them in their jobs in some way and, if so, how? What did they enjoy about them? What did they dislike about them? What were the qualities of a positive experience? Of a negative experience? What did they wish they had known before engaging in the activities? How would they like the next round of pro bono activities to be different?

A word to nonprofits/charities

Mostly, we've been addressing for-profits. But, nonprofits, you need to think about your responsibilities too!

If you are looking for pro bono assistance, don't just issue a plea for help; instead, write a description of your needs that highlights what about this pro bono assignment would be interesting, fun, and/or beneficial to the for-profit person or company.

People providing pro bono services are volunteers -- treat them as such. They should receive at least the same recognition -- pins, mugs, certificates, invitations, newsletters, etc. -- as your other volunteers. They should hear how their contributions impact your organization and those it serves. And they should be told thank you, again and again. It may not always be appropriate to say yes to donated services. In addition to ethical situations (such as how the company or consultant is associated with your staff or board), the services offered may not be what your nonprofit wants or needs. There may be large costs to your agency to maintain or support whatever the business or consultant creates for your organization. Or what they are proposing may not fit with your organization's mission.

When a company or consultant approaches your organization about donating a service, do some internal evaluation about what is being proposed, and what you think your own staff and resource commitment will be to make the pro bono service something that serves your mission.

Always treat the company or consultant with the utmost professionalism. Provide them with information and feedback at all stages clearly and quickly. If, in the beginning, the company or consultant doesn't talk about creating a contract for this project, then you bring it up and make sure it happens.

How can you find pro bono assistance? In addition to the traditional channels for volunteer recruitment (contacting your local volunteer center, circulating opportunities among existing volunteers, donors, board members and other supporters), try target-marketing volunteer recruitment to specific groups via the Internet (link no longer available). Also see Feeling Good About Doing Good, by Contract Professional magazine. "Contractors who donate their IT talents to help others find they receive more than 'thank yous' in return -- they're developing new skills, making friends, and gaining personal satisfaction. "

Caution! Re: Accepting Technology Donations "Free" computers and software are sometimes not worth the price. Before your organization says yes to any technology-related donation, no matter how good the deal sounds or how great the company donating is, please read this tip sheet.

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