Whether you are in the business of giving half of your work away for free or none of it, starting up is never easy. In this section of the FAQ, we will cover how and when to commit to a 50% pro-bono business model in the early stages of a business, how to acquire experience in the non-profit sector, how to reduce fixed costs in a business, and how to gradually adopt a model in which you give half of your work away for free in a manner that makes sense to you and your business.
B1: What does it mean to “institutionalize” pro-bono? When should I do that for my business?
Pro-bono is “institutionalized” when it becomes an official component of a business plan. What this means is that a specific offering is set, announced publicly, and acted upon. Put simply, your pro-bono offer becomes a part of your elevator pitch. For example, my company is not “a global design and innovation consultancy.” Instead, we are “a global design and innovation consultancy that dedicates over 50% of its efforts to pro-bono service for non-profit organizations.”
For new practitioners in the pro-bono space, there can be a lot of anxiety around officially announcing the pro-bono component of the business. The primary source of that anxiety comes from a fear of getting overwhelmed and an insecurity of impact.
1. Getting Overwhelmed: A common concern in regards to publicly announcing a pro-bono program is the fear of an onslaught of interested clients. Unless you are a mega-popular celebrity of sorts, you will not have a million people knocking on your door the moment you hit “publish” on your site. If you do happen to experience this mass-quantity of pro-bono leads, however, there are ways to deal with it in a safe and mature manner. First, only agree to take on what you can handle. Second, don’t be afraid to turn down a pro-bono lead. Third, if you are afraid to turn down a pro-bono lead, simply inform them of your specific start-date availability including when you would be able to complete the project, even if it is a year from this initial point of contact. If they are serious about your offer, and if they truly respect your work, they will wait for you.
2. Insecurity of Impact: The second most common concern startups share with me is what I like to refer to as an “insecurity of impact.” What I mean by this is that many people lack confidence in the impact they have, or have not, created. To that I say this: everyone has to start somewhere. If you don’t have a lot to show for yourself, make it clear what kind of impact you are hoping to have. If you don’t have much experience in the social sector at all, start talking to people. Be humble and seek advice to make you stronger and better suited to create impact.
B2: How do I decide the benefactor of my services?
The benefactor of your services is the person, place, or thing that is receiving your services for free. Who is benefiting from your services is the component of the model that is flexible as it is up to you to define who you are inspired to help. In many cases, the identified benefactors of companies that are leveraging this model have been selected very broadly. That said, there is definite value and opportunity in getting specific.
1. Broad Benefactor: Selecting a broad benefactor is the most common approach to the model as it allows for more flexibility and scalability in your business and personal interests. Being broad allows you to help a far larger group of people because there are fewer limitations on accessing your expertise. Being broad can also expose you, as a person, to many fields and sectors in order to help you form a wider range of specialty and interest. The downside of being broad, as is the case in any business, is that you have less focus, and therefore less tangible and specific expertise.
2. Specific Benefactor: Selecting a specific benefactor can be an interesting route in your practice as it will result in a very dense depth of knowledge and expertise within a specific sector. The level of specificity can range dramatically. For example: All non-profits that focus on homelessness, all non-profits that focus on homelessness in Los Angeles, all non-profits that focus on teenagers that are homeless on 6th street in Downtown Los Angeles. Too much specificity can make it difficult for you to find work due to too many necessary qualifications. Too much specificity can also lead to a loss in interest, the potential of getting bored in the work that you do, and a lack of challenge.
B3: What are some tricks I can leverage to keep my overhead low?
Keeping overhead low is a necessity in the leveraging of this model. So many expenditures in small business go far beyond the core competencies/necessities to run the business successfully. There is no room for that in this model! Business expenses fall under 5 categories: office supplies, rent, employees, marketing, and entertainment. There are ways to re-allocate funding for each of these 5 components that can help you run a tight, but comfortable ship.
1. Office Supplies: That Herman Miller chair is very tempting… but your ass will be just fine in that IKEA stool. Cut out a lot of the unnecessary office supplies by questioning what you need on a day-to-day basis. There is a good chance that 50% of the stuff you have in your office is used once every other month. Are there other ways to access those items? Do you print a lot? If not, can you print at Kinko’s when you need it? Do those magazine subscriptions have an online blog version? If so, can you cut out the subscription and just leverage your RSS feed? Buy only what you need on a daily basis. Borrow or rent everything else.
2. Rent: Rent is a big factor. We all want that big private office at the top of a skyscraper with awesome furniture, an Xbox, and a foosball table, but none of us need that. Co-working spaces are popping up everywhere, and they are a great resource for a business at any level as they often provide you with a private space, conference rooms, kitchens, and parking. Aside from that, they also provide community, and as a result, potential clients.
3. Employees: There is a good chance that you don’t need anyone on payroll. Get comfortable working exclusively with independent contractors and interns. This cuts out a lot of the overhead as it allows you to only get someone to help you with your work when you truly need it.
4. Marketing: Marketing is something that you should invest in wisely. Invest in speaking engagements/conferences and social media. Launch a Facebook page, run an ad campaign every month for at least $25. Go to at least once conference a quarter. If you can land yourself a seat on a panel or maybe even a keynote speaking engagement, you get to attend for free, and you also get to look very smart. Treat your clients well, and be very forward with them by informing them that your business comes to you via word of mouth. If you do a good job for them, they will tell their friends.
5. Entertainment: You do not need to take yourself out to lunch and dinner every night on your business card. Save it for a big client meeting with someone you want to really impress. If you really want to save money on client outings, but still front the bill, book meetings at an odd hour and suggest that you go out for coffee as opposed to lunch or dinner. It will save you, in general, $25-30.
B4: How do you get experience with the non-profit world?
This model does not require you to be an expert in the social sector, or in a specific cause. The model only requires you to be an expert in the service that you offer. This said, if you do want to get some hands-on experience with the non-profit world as a means to make yourself better equipped for the conversations that will result, simply volunteer for one!
B5: I’m a future founder / emerging entrepreneur. How do I launch this model?
For startups, we recommend launching with a 100% pro-bono model, and then gradually introduce paid clientele as time goes on. We have found this implementation plan to be successful as finding clients that are willing to take a risk by hiring a less experienced practitioner (like a startup) is easier when there is no financial risk involved.
To get started efficiently, if possible, account for a lack of income for the first several months of operation. Focusing on your pro-bono efforts in the beginning of your business is crucial as it will result in a strong reputation in the space and will also allow for significant networking potential. Use this as a time to build your portfolio full of projects that show off your full potential. Also use this as a time to meet people and develop a network of potential collaborators.
B6: I’m a veteran business owner that has a company that is already well established. How do I incorporate this model into what I am already doing?
For established businesses, you will be launching with a 0% pro-bono model, and then gradually adding additional non-profit projects to your current project list. Implementation for an established business can take time, and therefore we recommend establishing a “pro-bono” plan that calls for an immediate integration of 10% pro-bono, and then over the course of a year, build yourself up to at least 50% pro-bono.
If your business already has employees, make sure everyone is all-in on this pro-bono integration. Your entire team needs to be on board with this vision as it may result in some managerial adjustments to allow for an influx of projects. It is important to remember that this model will require a 100% increase in your company’s capacity in order to maintain the same revenue stream that you currently experience. For example, if you are currently managing 10 accounts, by the time you reach 50% pro-bono, you will have to be managing 20 accounts. In lieu of this reality, you will need to find creative ways to increase the bandwidth of your operations by gradually getting comfortable with outsourcing techniques as well as time management/resource optimization techniques.
B7: Can this be done part-time or full-time?
The model is designed to work on a full-time, all-in, basis. This is the primary reason that the model is designed specifically to be a for-profit operation that calls for a balance of paid and non-paid work in order to allow for self-sustainability. That said, as with many startups and new businesses in general, the root of your success and launch can often found in part-time operation. If you are currently a student, or an employee in another company, spend your nights building your network, clientele, and experience. When the time is right, take the leap into the full-time realm.