How Do You Launch a Pro Bono Program?

When Prosper Strategies became a B Corp earlier this year, we knew we wanted to show our commitment to using business as a force for good by launching a formal pro bono program.

Our firm has done pro bono work since the very beginning, and we’ve had the chance to use our marketing and PR expertise to help some very worthwhile causes over the years. But until last month, there was no real structure or strategy to the decisions we made about where we spent our time. The organizations we ended up helping were typically those that were in the right place at the right time. They asked for our support on projects we were excited about when we had the bandwidth to give it. But when we became a B Corp, we knew it was time to become less random and more reliable in our pro bono work. We committed to building a scalable, replicable model for consulting with nonprofits and social enterprises so that we could begin to donate our skills and time on a consistent basis and more accurately measure our impact.

And so the Changemaker Marketing Lab Grant was born. Through the grant, we offered social impact organizations the opportunity to partner with us on a pro bono basis for six months to develop their messaging, build their marketing strategy and gain the skills necessary to bring it to life. We received nearly 60 applications, and had such a hard time selecting a single winner that we chose to offer three additional partial grants to our runners up. Launching this program is hands down my favorite project we’ve worked on at Prosper Strategies this year.

As we embark on our work with 2016’s Changemaker Marketing Lab grantees, I want to take a moment to pause and reflect on what we learned through the process of bringing our first pro bono program to life this year. I hope some of our lessons might be useful to other B Corps and social impact companies that are considering formalizing their social responsibility, corporate giving and pro bono initiatives.

Building a thoughtful pro bono program takes time

When we first thought about formalizing our pro bono offering, we were focused on the donated time we’d spend executing on pro bono client work. We figured this into our projections for team bandwidth and revenue. But we majorly underestimated the time it would take to actually build the program.

Between creating the content for our Changemaker Marketing Lab sessions, building our landing page and marketing materials, creating the application and vetting submissions and choosing our winners, our team easily spent over 100 hours launching Changemaker Marketing Lab this year. This was undoubtedly time well-spent, and luckily, we scheduled this work for summer, which is always a slightly slower season for us. But if you’re planning to launch your own program, I definitely suggest getting serious about how much time it’s going to take to do well and then planning your launch during a time when you have the bandwidth to handle it. That might mean putting your other informal pro bono work on pause, or if you can swing it financially, shifting some of your team’s resources from other paying projects.

A pro bono program launch is the perfect time to let your team try new things

We got our whole team involved in preparing for the program launch, vetting applications and making calls to finalists, and I’m so happy we did. Not only did this level of involvement help everyone feel deeply invested in the program and passionate about their work at Prosper, but it also gave our employees the chance to try out new things. Some of the more junior members of our team had never done a call with a prospective client before, and for them, the finalist calls provided a great glimpse into that kind of work. Others, including our fabulous intern Emma, got the exciting opportunity to work with media vendors and build partnerships that they wouldn’t have touched for a regular Prosper project. It was really exciting watch our our team step into new territory and thrive. I expect this will continue as we move forward with the actual work with our Changemaker Marketing Lab grantees as well. Everyone on our team has a role on a grantee project, and in most cases, their roles differ a bit from their regular responsibilities, so they’ll be able to stretch their skills and learn new things.

If you’re considering launching a pro bono program of your own, think critically about the skills you want to foster in your team members (especially your junior employees). What skills are tough to build under the constraints of your regular work? Can you build a program that gives your team the chance to grow professionally with lower risk and great opportunity for reward?

You’ll want to work with everyone

When we put out our call for applicants, I had no idea how hard it would be to choose a winner. Narrowing down the entire pool to a group of finalists based on the application responses was hard enough, but when we got on the phone with our prospective grantees for mini-interviews, the real challenge began. We received so many amazing, inspiring applications, and to be honest, we felt that all of them deserved our support. We originally intended to choose just one winner, but ultimately ended up making a partial grant available to several runners-up as well simply because we wanted to find a way to extend the program to a few more worthy applicants.

Expect to face the same challenges when you launch your own pro bono program. No matter the size of your organization, it’s important to be realistic about the amount of time you can commit to pro bono work without harming your bottom line. Giving back is important, but so is staying financially solvent. Nothing will make your organization’s pro bono program disappear faster than a string of months spent in the red. And the alternative of overcommitting to pro bono work and then underperforming, or totally burning your employees out by giving them pro bono work that can only be done on evenings and weekends isn’t much better. As Prosper Strategies continues to grow as a firm, we’re committed to extending our pro bono programming so we can help more organizations, but we’re starting small and committing to giving our Changemaker Marketing Lab grantees the high level of care they deserve.

If you’re thinking about launching a pro bono program and want to talk to someone who’s been there, don’t hesitate to reach out. I’d love to chat.

Alyssa is the President and Co-Founder of Prosper Strategies, and is obsessed with helping impactful organizations achieve their goals through marketing.

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