In the time since the first edition of “How to Give Half of Your Work Away for Free” was published, it has been great to see the response Matt Manos’ message has elicited, chiefly from the professional services industry.  The #GiveHalf model and accompanying book has helped provide a very actionable challenge to professional services firms to rethink what is possible in making pro bono a core part of the service business model. While verynice’s literal 50% pro bono model might not be for everyone, professional services firms in general have historically adopted pro bono service programs more widely than their counterparts in other industries. This is likely because the concept of what pro bono service is and what it takes to deliver it well can be easily understood in the same terms as a professional services firm’s core business framework— at the simplest level: do what you do every day but, for the benefit of social good, make the decision to not charge a certain type of client for that work. 

But what about companies that are not professional services firms? For companies whose core functions do not involve delivering professional services to clients— pharmaceutical companies, credit card companies, software companies, etc.— it is not always as obvious how well their competencies can translate into pro bono professional services. At the Taproot Foundation, however, we have long thought that what is at the core of this movement— the pro bono ethic— is just as relevant and actionable for non-professional services companies.  In fact, it was with that belief that I founded Taproot’s Advisory Services practice in 2008 to help all types of companies build effective programs that can tap into and unleash their most valuable resource: their talent.

So do not worry if you are not a professional services firm. Here are the three key concepts that will allow you to tap into the ethos and opportunity that Matt and others describe in this book:  

Pro bono” is not Latin for “free legal work” (or “free graphic design”):  Do not get stuck on perceptions and definitions.

It has become widely accepted that most nonprofits need to receive legal services pro bono in order to access the expert advice that they need, but professional services in other areas like HR, IT, and strategic planning are equally necessary and similarly inaccessible to most organizations. The value of pro bono professional services is not limited to only one type of professional expertise— engaging your employees’ core professional expertise, whatever that may be, to provide relevant professional services to an organization serving the public good is “pro bono service”. What is most critical, though, is not the label* that you use to describe the work or program, but rather the adherence to the principle that professional services must be provided with the relevant, appropriate professional expertise. For legal services, identifying that someone has the right expertise seems easy— because lawyers go through a specific training (law school) and certification process (the bar exam). But having to match a need with the right expertise should not be a prohibitive obstacle to providing pro bono services in other areas. As an employer you make assessments and decisions every day in your hiring, development, and promotion of employees about their level and areas of expertise. Applying the golden rule and providing professional support to nonprofits with the same relevant level of expertise you would want staffed on an internal assignment is often gauge enough.

“Volunteering Redefined” (Taproot’s original founding tagline in 2001):

As you also see reflected in the #GiveHalf materials, when professional services firms are considering providing pro bono services, two of the main factors they need to consider and navigate are the opportunity cost of billable hours and the implementation of an approach that ensures quality and accountability— challenges that relate very directly to considerations of their everyday business model. For companies that are not service providers, however, exploring the idea of a pro bono program is almost always embedded in the topic of ‘volunteering.’ Why does this matter? Because there are several key ways that this type of service is fundamentally different from traditional volunteer program models. Simply put, the management needs and deliverables of pro bono service programs share more in common with a consulting model than with the activities of a traditional volunteer program. As a result, we have seen time and time again that a company’s early success in developing a pro bono program is often directly related to its ability to recognize and address those distinct requirements through the program design. That sentiment was in part reflected in Taproot’s original founding tagline: “Volunteering Redefined,” recognizing that pro bono service programs require a shift in the traditional approaches to volunteering.

Like the professional services firms that Matt describes, your company also has a pool of talent with relevant, needed professional expertise, and your employees also deeply desire these opportunities.

The biggest difference is simply that your employees’ work structure has most likely not been organized around an external facing, consultative approach.  Fortunately, for most companies the solution is often close at hand. This challenge can be addressed by incorporating project management best practices:

    • A defined scope of work and incremental timeline
    • A clear translation of the roles, responsibilities, and expertise needed to fulfill it
    • Processes for vetting, staffing, and managing that talent
    • Clearly assigned project oversight accountability

Coupled with the critical components of client service:

    • Clearly designated client decision-making authority
    • Mutually understood timeframe and process for incremental client feedback and approval
    • Mutually agreed upon project closure milestone (for example a presentation of findings, implementation of final deliverable, or handover of final product)

While many traditional, more hands-on volunteering activities certainly also benefit from some of these components (what volunteer would not want to have a clear sense of what they are doing and how long it should take?), it is the combination of all of these components that often differs from what is already in place to bring to life and manage other common corporate volunteer activities like serving food in a soup kitchen or cleaning up a playground.

 Increased Investment Upfront Yields Increased Returns at the End

While developing an effective pro bono program might require a more substantial investment of time and resources upfront than more traditional models of volunteerism, the good news is that all indications from the field have shown that investment ends up being part of a very balanced equation: the inputs required might be greater, but the value of the outcome for the participants— all of them: the nonprofits, the volunteers and their employers— is greater as well. If you invest in the approach needed to make a pro bono program run well, the return on your investment is high.

Leveraged Impact

According to a 2012 True Impact study, the value to nonprofits of skilled volunteer support for general operations, technology, and professional services is up to 500% greater than the value of other forms of volunteering.

Not only does that reflect a higher value use of an employee’s volunteer time, it also enables your nonprofit partners to expand their impact going forward by building their organizational capacity, lowering operating costs and increasing efficiencies.

Enhanced Employee Engagement and Leadership Development

In addition to its profound value to nonprofits, pro bono service has also proven to have a significant impact on the volunteers. Across critical HR matters including leadership development, retention and morale, pro bono service programs produce impressive results. Compared to traditional volunteerism, employees who participate on a pro bono project are 22% more likely to develop new internal relationships and 300% more likely to demonstrate material job-related skill gains as a result of their pro bono experience.

These improvements are evident not just to participants but to their managers as well; in a Capital One survey, participating employees’ managers were asked about changes in their employees following a pro bono project. Of surveyed managers, 90% reported improvement in their employees’ leadership skills.

A recent survey of employees by HP yielded similarly impressive results, finding that employees who participated in skills-based volunteer projects had 13% higher morale than employees who participated in traditional hands-on volunteer activities and 59% higher morale than non-volunteers.

Opportunity for Innovation

A pro bono service program also provides a rare opportunity for employees to gain perspective and sharpen their critical thinking as they apply their skills and training in a new and challenging setting. More than half of the colleagues of participants in GSK’s largest pro bono program— PULSE— reported that employee participants had “brought new ideas and fresh ways of thinking back to GSK” and that the PULSE volunteers had “shared an external perspective that has helped to inform or shape GSK work, thinking or policy”. In addition, 75% of participants’ colleagues reported that the participating volunteers had brought back a “reinvigorated energy, spirit, motivation and morale to those they work with.”


48 2007 Volunteer IMPACT Study”, Deloitte & Touche USA LLP, 2007.

49 “2012 Volunteerism ROI Tracker Analysis”, True Impact, 2012.

50 “Can Corporate Volunteering Support the Bottom Line? The Challenge. The Opportunity. The Case for Investment,” LBG Associates, The Case Foundation and Hands on Network, 2005.

51 “2010 Volunteerism ROI Tracker Analysis”, True Impact, 2010.

52 “Pro Bono Service: The Business Case”, LBG and Associates, 2009.

53Hewlett-Packard, 2013.

54PULSE 2011 Impact Report”, GSK, 2011.