Our founding motto here as a pro bono charity, is that “great causes deserve great talent”.

But, what is pro bono? How can you get involved? How can firms get involved? How can good causes benefit from the practice? These are all questions that we explore in this guide, designed to equip you to take part yourself.

As you explore the field of pro bono, you will uncover how powerful the combination of great causes and great talent can be - transforming lives, accelerating social impact and advancing the common good.

Understanding pro bono volunteering

At its core, pro bono volunteering involves people with professional or occupational skills offering their time and expertise without charge to non-profit organisations or individuals in need.

This encompasses a wide array of skills, ranging from legal and financial expertise to marketing, technology, healthcare, and beyond. This breadth allows professionals from various fields to contribute to causes that align with their skill sets.

The words ‘pro bono’ are Latin in origin and mean ‘for good’ and this is at the heart of the motivation for it, to do good.

Even so, we will also see, as we step into this guide to the field, that by volunteering, it is not just that you can use your professional skills for good but also that in the process you can build your resume and portfolio. In giving, you can also get back.

For volunteers, engaging in skilled pro bono work offers an unusual opportunity for professional development. It allows individuals to apply their skills in diverse contexts, honing their expertise while expanding their network. Collaborating with other skilled professionals and organisations can in turn open doors to new opportunities and perspectives.

A black man sitting on a wall

Maximising impact: A guide to pro bono consulting services

Charities, voluntary organisations or wider non-governmental organisations (NGOs) often operate with limited resources.

Larger non-profits are often able to employ people with specialist skills, but it is an old adage that leaders of smaller charities have to be Jack or Jill ‘of all trades’, turning their attention to a wide range of issues, from managing staff and volunteers, running operations, analysing data, building relationships and fundraising. It is hard to be good at all these different tasks.  

Skilled pro bono volunteers provide these organisations with access to expertise that may be financially out of reach, helping them operate more efficiently and effectively in pursuit of their missions. Often this starts with the Board, which under UK charity law is typically an unpaid, voluntary role in itself. Or it can be coming from outside, where pro bono action can be considered as a form of consulting – bringing outside expertise in, while the ultimate decision-making remains in place within the charity. This is why we sometimes talk about the field as one of pro bono ‘consulting services’.

It is a huge strength of the charity model that volunteers can bring expertise that a charity may not be able to pay for. This is where skilled volunteering has a unique role to play – where people give their time and expertise to the public good rather than, or in addition to their money.

And there is growing demand. Seven out of 10 small and medium-sized charities say that they are actively looking for pro bono professional skills to support what they do – but only four out of 10 find it.

Pro bono revolution: How volunteer consulting is shaping the future of non-profits

In recent years, a pro bono revolution has been taking shape, creating a paradigm shift in the way that charities are able to leverage professional expertise.

While the number of people who are engaged in general, non-skills-based volunteering is in decline, there is in positive contrast a significant rise in the numbers of people who are volunteering using their professional skills.  

A significant element of this centres around workplace volunteering, recognising that when people use their skills to volunteer outside of the business, that people return with confidence and competences that are perfect for their development and growth, as well as of benefit to the business as a whole.

Asian woman in a head scarf talking to a white man with his back to the camera in a kitchen

Unleashing potential: Exploring the benefits of pro bono consulting for your business

The heroes of pro bono are typically the volunteers but the move has been embraced too by the businesses they work for, and in some cases, by the professions that they are members of.

For some, this is part of their corporate social responsibility, where skilled volunteering is a welcome complement and addition to the menu of possible business actions. But increasingly, it is also recognised that there are benefits from pro bono action to the businesses who participate, including: increased employee wellbeing; better staff retention and loyalty; increased attraction to potential employees; and advancing their diversity, equity and inclusion.

Firstly, it provides an avenue for employees to apply their skills in a meaningful context, fostering a sense of purpose and engagement. This not only contributes to a positive corporate culture but also enhances employee satisfaction and retention.

Secondly, engaging in pro bono consulting offers unique learning opportunities. Employees can gain diverse experiences, hone their problem-solving abilities, and cultivate a deeper understanding of societal issues. This, in turn, can foster innovation within the company by bringing fresh perspectives and insights into the corporate mindset.

One leading champion is business leader Paul Drechsler CBE, President of the CBI from 2015 – 2018 who says:

It is not just good for society for businesses to support their employees who want to use their skills through volunteering, it is good for business. The charity sector has never faced so many challenges and there has never been such a great opportunity for employees to volunteer and make a really big difference, learn and show what a great force for good their organisation and business can be. This is a huge opportunity for achievement, satisfaction and pride for a small investment of time. Now is the right time for action on this.

Dame Elizabeth Corley, Chair, Impact Investing Institute comments:

There is a growing realisation that giving days of pro bono time to employees should in some way be part of their employment package.

Behind the scenes: The untold stories of success in pro bono consulting

Behind the scenes of pro bono consulting lie untold stories of success, showcasing the profound impact of professionals donating their expertise for social good. These narratives reveal the dedication and innovation that emerge when skilled individuals commit to solving real-world challenges.

One pro bono success story is the Mental Health Collective, founded by Amy Pollard as a fellowship of people who have experienced mental health difficulties themselves, alongside experts from a variety of mental health professions. With pro bono tech support, Amy developed a model to tackle loneliness by asking people to send and to receive a message by post.

The first mass trial was around Valentine’s Day in 2020, meaning that the model was in place when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and it suddenly felt more relevant than ever. Over 12,000 people have taken part in #KindnessByPost with participants from across the UK. Actor Indira Varma, broadcasters Rev Kate Bottley, Anna Richardson and comedian Dave Chawner have all got involved.

The initiative did benefit from small funding grants, but also from a range of individuals and organisations Amy calls ‘pro bono heroes’. Key to this was the firm OpenCredo, who built the software on which #KindnessByPost depends. “There are no words for the levels of love we have for OpenCredo” says Amy, “achieving your mission as a not-for-profit is like climbing a mountain, and they have effectively built us a cable car.”

Nicki Watt is Chief Technology Officer at OpenCredo, first met Amy when working at Sony Playstation. “At OpenCredo, we were looking for ways to give back to the community. We thought of people volunteering at food banks but we have skills in IT and thought that this was a perfect way to contribute: using skills we are good at for a really special cause.“

“We had a few people who were on the bench, as we call it, and we deployed them to work on #KindnessByPost.” The pro bono project brought a lot of cheer to people at OpenCredo. As well as building the system, staff signed up as users. As Nicki explains “Our team went above and beyond to contribute because it was building something that is a worthwhile cause. We have people in our company who struggle with mental health issues. The work helped to create a conversation on this.”

This is a tale of collaborative problem-solving, where consultants navigate the unique obstacles that may face non-profits, bringing their skills to bear on and helping to innovate. It is also a tale that sheds light on the personal growth experienced by volunteers. As they delved into unfamiliar territories, these professionals gain a profound understanding of a social issue, mental health, that affected them too. The case study underscores the reciprocity inherent in pro bono work—volunteers not only give but receive, gaining a deeper sense of purpose and fulfilment in their professional lives.

Black man reading a card

Pro bono consulting 101: Starting your journey in volunteer consulting services

If you're considering embarking on a journey in volunteer consulting services, here's a Pro Bono 101 to help you get started.

  • Come forward

Trust us. There is a charity out there looking for your skills and input. The context may not be the same, you will be working in a new way, you will learn as you go but don’t doubt yourself or fall prey to the Imposter Syndrome at the first hurdle. You are needed and you can help.  

  • Find opportunities

Start with what you can offer, including what skills you bring, whether in finance, marketing, technology, or management, but also what time commitment you can make. One question is whether you want to put yourself forward, now or in future, as a trustee for a charity – you can find out more on this in our guide to being a Charity Trustee and empowering change through leadership. These are roles which may be advertised on charity sector platforms. Otherwise it may be helpful to make a link with a pro bono charity – there are platforms that facilitate opportunities, or there are organisations like Pilotlight who do the work of making connections, with individuals as well as businesses. Or there are specialist charities for specific professions, such as LawWorks for solicitors.

  • Learn as you go

It helps if you can understand the context within which charities operate. Attend relevant events, webinars, or workshops to connect with like-minded professionals and stay informed about emerging opportunities in the non-profit sector.

  • Build relationships

Successful pro bono engagements hinge on effective partnerships between volunteers and non-profits. The more diversity there is, the better. But they are also an opportunity to engage with your wider professional network, whether to explore potential opportunities or to seek advice from others who have already participated in volunteer consulting.

  • Set and meet expectations

Once you've found a pro bono opportunity, communicate openly with the non-profit organisation. Effective communication is vital to ensuring a successful collaboration. Try to understand their needs, constraints, and expectations, so that together you can clearly define the scope of the project, timelines, and deliverables.

  • Share your power as a professional

During the engagement, approach the project with the same level of professionalism as you would in a paid consultancy, even though you are not being paid. Be proactive, meet deadlines, and maintain open lines of communication. Share your power, remembering that your pro bono work can have a profound impact on the organisation's ability to fulfil its mission.

  • Assess your impact

Reflect on your pro bono experience. It may take time to know, but it is helpful to evaluate the impact of your contributions and consider how you can continue to make a difference.

  • And go again

Make pro bono a habit, part of how you choose to live and work.

Transforming lives: How pro bono services propel charity success stories

The heart of pro bono volunteering lies in its ability to transform lives, both for the volunteers and the communities they serve. Emma Pears, founder and CEO of the charity SELFA had her first experience of pro bono support in 2016 and it was a profound one.

I remember the first day I walked through the reception to be greeted by a team of business experts and feeling like the imposter in the room. Letting a team of professionals put our little charity under the spotlight felt quite daunting initially. Having helped to set up the charity nine years earlier, I knew that to really make a difference in the lives of children and young people for years to come, we needed to embrace significant change. To accomplish that we needed support, particularly around how we could apply business strategy to our blossoming organisation.

Emma adds that “in the seven years since we completed Pilotlight 360, we've kept moving forward - our income has increased threefold, we now have diverse and secure funding streams as well as clear financial planning. We are reaching more children and families than ever before, branching into new areas of work around children's mental health and addressing health inequalities. All of this at a time when charities have been under more pressure than ever before, both financially and in terms of demand for our services. I can honestly say that the year spent with Pilotlight was the most impactful time in my 20+ years career in the voluntary sector, we are still reaping the benefits of the opportunities that it brought many years later.”

It is possible to model the value of pro bono support like this. We estimate the total potential added value of pro bono action for charities in the UK, assuming full participation of those who would like to volunteer and for an average of one hour a week, is £17.25 billion pa (an estimate at mid-point values). This would represent a sixfold increase in the value of contribution of business to charities.

SELFA CEO and two children holding a series of chalkboards that say 'At SELFA experience happiness, have hope for the future.'

Personal empowerment through volunteering

Volunteering is a powerful avenue for self-discovery and growth. It allows individuals to harness their skills and passions in service to others – a dynamic that we call ‘learning by doing good’.

It is a form of learning because it provides a unusual opportunity to step outside one's comfort zone, confront challenges, and develop resilience. As volunteers contribute to causes they are passionate about, we see that they often discover untapped strengths and capabilities within themselves, leading to increased self-confidence.

Moreover, volunteering fosters a sense of connection and community, offering a sense of belonging contributes to emotional well-being and a deeper understanding of one's place in the broader tapestry of society.

One volunteer we have worked with, Rose Evans, is a Director at BlackRock, Head of Manager Research Alternatives for the Multi-asset Strategies and Solutions team. She comments that:

BlackRock sponsored me to take part in Pilotlight 360 and I was really excited about being a part of the programme. The Salford Foundation, a charity that supports opportunities for children and young adults in the North West of England, resonated with me and it’s been rewarding to give back to the community I grew up in. Rewarding, inspirational, entrepreneurial… these are the three words that I would use to describe being a Pilotlighter.

Skilled volunteering is a tool for self empowerment, not because it is centred on the self, but because it reframes the self, connecting one’s intimate identity with the perspective and agency of a wider world of positive action.

Community impact and sustainable change

In a similar way, pro bono volunteering has the potential to change the story that is told about communities. The charity Meadow Well Connected for example is based in the North East of England and has been at the heart of community regeneration over 30 years. The charity provides essential community services. By also connecting with trustees and skilled volunteers from the community and beyond to sustain those services, the charity offers a visible, physical signal, with the centre, café and garden of benefits of local action and the health of the community.  

As Duncan Craig, CEO of the charity We are Survivors commented on pro bono volunteers that supported them in Manchester, that in stepping into the needs of the charity, they had become allies and not obervers:

We were blown away by the enthusiasm of the Pilotlighters as they worked up solutions to the brief we set them.

Two people talking

The ripple effect: Unveiling the far-reaching benefits of pro bono for charities

The impact of pro bono services can extend beyond the immediate project at hand, helping to build capacity and transfer skills and knowledge.

  • Capacity building and organisational growth

Pro bono services contribute to the capacity building of non-profits, empowering them to achieve their missions more effectively. An example is research on the state of play in the environmental sector. Here, there is a gap in terms of capacity building in a field that has a vital need for it, given the climate emergency. As one charity puts it “we cannot wait until charities naturally grow, we need to invest now in innovation and allow projects to learn/fail/succeed at speed.” Our estimate is that there is a need for an additional 100,000 skilled climate volunteers to support charities and social enterprises working on climate and sustainability in the UK.

  • Knowledge transfer and skill building

Pro bono engagements facilitate a transfer of knowledge and skills from volunteers to non-profit teams. Knowledge transfer can enhance the capabilities of non-profit staff, fostering long-term self-sufficiency. An outstanding example is the work of pro bono volunteers from the digital and tech sector, working through programmes such as Catalyst, Digital Candle and the Scottish Tech Army. Starting well before the pandemic, which was in itself of course a dramatic spur to going digital in the non-profit sector, the rise of digital skills, the spread of digital trustees, has been charted over time by Zoe Amar in the annual Charity Digital Skills Report. One in two charities in 2023 (48%) report having a strategic approach to digital, up from one in three (32%) in 2019.

Pro bono power: A deep dive into Its game-changing role in charity development

A compelling example of charity development in recent years has been the rise of food poverty non-profits, looking to tackle food hunger and challenge its causes – often linked to charities and businesses working too on food waste.

Rob Partakides is Regulatory Relations Group Executive Director at Morgan Stanley. For over 10 years Morgan Stanley has partnered with Pilotlight to develop a host of pro bono programmes for their employees in both London and Glasgow. Rob has worked with Pilotlight and its Partner Charities since 2015, when he first took part in Morgan Stanley’s annual pro bono Strategy Challenge in the UK. Although he had previously volunteered for charities, Partakides says he had “never really thought about how my business skills could be useful [to them]”.

The Strategy Challenge was “a very humbling experience” which opened his eyes to new social issues, he says - but also a successful one. Asked by a charity whether it should open a café in order to meet food needs and diversify its income, the analysis he gave said no, but set out other options. The recommendations his team provided their charity mean that five years on, it is going from strength to strength. With colleagues at Morgan Stanley, he has since worked with a number of other charities through Pilotlight, including the London food waste and food poverty charity The Felix Project. The Felix Project has experienced rapid growth, alongside other food poverty charities that have drawn on pro bono support, such as Sufra in North London.

In many cases, at the heart of the services on offer are a partnership with food distribution and retail businesses, large or small, who want to play their part in making a difference and in the process are also building their understanding of how to reduce food waste.

Melanie Richards, Non Executive Director at Morgan Stanley says:

I see three types of value being created by these exchanges. First, personal stretch and growth. Second, systems change through the introduction of some new DNA. Third, specific social and environmental positives. For me this adds up to a compelling argument for more organisations to open themselves up to partnerships, dialogue and talent exchanges across the business/charity divide.

Two people loading a van with food

Bridging gaps: How pro bono expertise elevates charitable causes

Charities often face multifaceted issues, ranging from financial management and marketing strategies to technological advancements. Pro bono volunteers, equipped with different skills from different sectors, step in to provide tailored solutions. For example, a financial expert may assist in developing sustainable fundraising models, while a marketing professional can enhance a charity's outreach and visibility.

Pro bono doesn’t always work. The world of professionals can be technocratic, obscure and not reflective of the diversity of wider society. But then, ironically, the same can be said of charity leadership. There is a need for the two worlds to come together and find common ground in being open and inclusive.

Where this happens, the bridge built by pro bono services can be more than just a short-term fix. Done right it can also be a sustainable solution. Here, pro bono services act as a bridge of expertise, connecting skilled professionals with charities in need – a collaboration that not only addresses the skills gap but also builds a foundation for sustained growth and success in the pursuit of charitable missions.

Turning vision into reality through pro bono efforts – the future of pro bono

The growth of skilled volunteering has been reflected in the emergence of strategic and practical collaboration across charities and businesses in the UK who are now looking to promote the future of pro bono.

The Pro Bono Association, convened by Cranfield Trust, Pilotlight and Reach, involves a wide range of organisations who are bringing skilled volunteers in to support charities, sometimes as all they do, sometimes as part of what they do. Members include (without naming every organisation): Charterpath, Digital Candle, ICAEW, Inspiring Scotland, LandAid, LawWorks, MarketingKind, Media Trust, Pro Bono Economics, Scottish Tech Army, Sported and the OR Society.

Together, pro bono providers have engaged professionals to support 8,300 charities and social enterprises over the last year

The Pro Bono Association meets once a quarter to learn openly from each other and to share tools and good practice, from how to match volunteers to how to build diversity. As part of this, we have developed a ten year vision for pro bono action.

One proposition for example is that pro bono volunteering becomes embedded in professional development in every sector, as it has started to in law; that it becomes part of what it means to be a successful professional, part of what you badge and talk about on LinkedIn.

A second proposition is that rather than a one-way exchange, from business to charity, say, we see skills-based volunteering as a form of mutuality, a practice of ‘skills sharing’, in which both parties can learn from each other. 

Pro bono volunteering stands as a beacon of hope in the realm of social impact. Whether you are a seasoned professional eager to share your skills or someone just starting out with volunteer consulting services, the world of pro bono is rich with opportunities for collaboration and positive change. You are on a journey to create a lasting impact on communities and society at large.

Pilotlighters and charity leader

Start your pro bono journey with Pilotlight

“I wanted to bring new people to the table,” is how celebrated social entrepreneur Jane Tewson described her decision to set up Pilotlight. It was, in ways, a similar spirit to her earlier achievement of co-founding Comic Relief. Since then, we’ve connected over 180 businesses and 3,000 volunteers with over 1,000 charities to ignite change that lasts.

Pilotlight team all holding an inflatable world ball