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A guide for pro bono consulting services

If there is one word that explains the rise of pro bono action, it is impact. People come forward to offer their time and skills for the difference that they can make. Charities and good causes are looking for skilled volunteers because of the opportunities that pro bono can unlock for them to do more.

Social impact is the north star for pro bono action, but having said that, you can’t take it for granted. To maximise impact, those involved have to be as professional in their practice of pro bono as the people and firms offering consulting support have to be in relation to the professional expertise that they are offering.

Understanding pro bono consulting

Pro bono consulting involves professionals offering their expertise and services without charge to non-profit organisations or individuals in need. The goal is to address challenges, strengthen organisational capacities, and ultimately enhance the impact of social initiatives. The essence of pro bono lies in the voluntary contribution of skills, knowledge, and time, creating a reciprocal relationship where professionals support causes aligned with their values.

The power of strategic alignment

If impact is the North Star, then it is not surprising to suggest that maximising impact through pro bono consulting begins with strategic alignment, both personal and professional. The sweet spot is where professionals find opportunities that resonate with their skills, experiences, and passions. This alignment ensures a more profound and meaningful contribution, as individuals can leverage their expertise in areas where they will go the extra mile.

Identifying personal strengths

Before engaging in pro bono work, it is helpful for individuals to reflect on their strengths and areas of expertise. Don’t give in to the imposter syndrome, of fearing that you cannot help. There is a need for your skills. Whether it's financial analysis, marketing, legal advice, or project management, recognising one's skills is the first step toward making a strategic impact.

Matching skills with organisational needs

Once personal strengths are identified, the next crucial step is finding organisations whose needs align with these skills. This may be about using your networks to scan for opportunities or taking a look at volunteering platforms such as Reach. If you are doing this through your workplace, then the matching may be done by others in your firm or through a specialist agency such as Pilotlight.

Collaborative partnerships for impact

The matching process ensures that the pro bono engagement is tailored to address specific challenges faced by the non-profit, maximising the value of the contribution. For companies and charities, it also helps to build effective and collaborative partnerships beyond the direct support through your engagement.

Open communication

Clear and open communication is the cornerstone of all successful pro bono collaborations. It helps if volunteers and non-profits put some time aside for this, to ensure that expectations, goals, and timelines are well understood from the outset. This exchange of information is essential – the volunteer needs to understand the context, which may be very different to others they have worked in, while the non-profit needs to build their understanding of the different options so that they are an effective client and get the support that they genuinely need.

Strategic project scoping and goal setting

As part of this, in order to maximise impact, pro bono projects should be strategically scoped, with clear goals and objectives. Clearly defining the scope of the pro bono project helps to ensure that efforts are focused and aligned with the non-profit's needs. This involves identifying the specific challenges to be addressed, the expected outcomes, and the resources required. Setting realistic and achievable goals is key to maximising impact. You want to establish goals that are ambitious yet attainable within the realities of a given timeframe and the inevitable resource constraints.

Young Asian Voices members

Leveraging technology for enhanced impact

In the digital age, technology plays a growing role in maximising the impact of pro bono consulting services.

Digital platforms

Digital platforms can facilitate seamless collaboration between volunteers and non-profits. For larger employers, this may be in the form of pro bono being a recognised element of internal platforms or systems for learning and development or for corporate social responsibility.

Digital systems

Whether it's project management tools, communication platforms, or data analytics software, leveraging technology enhances efficiency and effectiveness.

Harnessing data for informed decision-making

Data-driven decision-making is a hallmark of impactful consulting. Volunteers can use data analytics to gain insights into the non-profit's operations, identify areas for improvement, and guide strategic recommendations.

Continuous learning and adaptability

The landscape of social impact is dynamic, requiring pro bono consultants to be adaptable and committed to continuous learning.

Embracing a growth mindset

A growth mindset is essential for both volunteers and non-profits. Embracing a mentality of continuous learning and improvement fosters innovation, resilience and the ability to navigate challenges effectively.

Feedback loops for improvement

Establishing feedback loops ensures that the pro bono engagement remains a two-way learning experience. Volunteers can benefit from insights gained during the project, refining their approaches in future engagements, while non-profits can apply learnings to enhance their organisational capacities.

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Overcoming challenges for sustainable impact

Maximising impact through pro bono consulting involves addressing challenges head-on and adopting strategies for sustainable solutions.

Financial constraints

Financial constraints are a common challenge for non-profits. This means that finding money becomes the primary objective and pro bono action, even where it aligns with this as a free offer, may be caught up in this. Some charities may see volunteers, coming from better paid worlds of work, as a way to raise money, so it helps to be clear whether this is part of the brief or not. Having said this, pro bono volunteers can often help by using their networks, such as in business, or giving advice to make the most of charity budgets or by offering financial planning guidance to ensure long-term sustainability.

Resource constraints

Linked to this are the resource constraints. Ideally, charities have the time and skills to manage the input of outside experts, but this is not always the case. For example, typically, non-profits don’t have the skills that they are trying to bring in through skilled volunteers, so they may not have a clear or informed idea on what the best options are to, to maximise the impact of this support. One example was during the COVID-19 pandemic, when the Scottish Tech Army was formed to link professionals in the technology sector to help charities that needed to find new, remote ways of providing their services. Request after request came through for the development of ‘an app’, whereas after a free, initial consultation, the support evolved into more practical needs, such as an effective customer relationship management system.

Building organisational capacity

A key question for pro bono impact is not what happens during the consulting period, but what happens afterwards. We see charities that have had support from grant-making bodies who offer ‘funder plus’ support through consultancies paid for by the charitable foundation who parachute in for a few days and then leave. This can be welcome, but some charities complain to us that all this means is that they are given a business plan or recommendations for action that they cannot realistically take forward. With skilled volunteering, it is not the output that matters so much as the ongoing outcome. Enhancing organisational capacity is an ongoing process. Volunteers should work collaboratively with non-profits to develop capacity-building initiatives, providing training and resources that empower the organisation to thrive independently.

Case studies: Realising impact in action

To illustrate the principles of maximising impact, examining real-world case studies provides tangible examples of successful pro bono consulting engagements.

Case study 1: Supporting good governance

Pennysmart Community Interest Company was set up by Jayne Bellis to combat poverty and exclusion for those in financial hardship. As Managing Director, with a brand-new board of Non-Executive Directors — all first-timers with little experience— she wanted pro bono help with getting Pennysmart’s governance up to speed.

A team of volunteers from Barclays worked to understand their needs and to design an effective programme of action to take forward. The charity is implementing the guidance to improve roles and responsibilities as well as organising the board and Jayne now believes she has a roadmap to deliver on all the charity’s goals and will continue to build and improve on this blueprint well into the future.

Group photo of Pennysmart

Case study 2: Options for revenue generation

Protect is the UK’s whistleblowing charity. One of Protect’s key products is the Whistleblowing Benchmark and Jon Cunningham, Business Development Director, came to Pilotlight for pro bono support to develop this for selling to small and medium sized enterprises. Jon explained:

There were many considerations however, including the content and technical aspects of the product, pricing and going to market. Working with Pilotlight was a good opportunity to get fresh, external views on this.

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Case study 3: Support for marketing

Costello Medical is a healthcare firm that is passionate about pro bono, championing the practice within the firm but also with its partners and competitors. One health charity that staff from the firm supported in 2021 was The Brain Tumour Charity in preparing for the launch of a data platform on diseases. The pro bono support was to research and test the potential for this new data platform, which is now live and in good use.

Creating social impact for companies

As a two-way process, pro bono consulting can help create positive impact within companies and not just for charities. Enabling staff to volunteer helps to build skills, inject fresh perspectives and nurture greater awareness of diversity, equity and inclusion as pro bono consulting draws people into engage with others with people who have very different lived experience.

Angela Halliday, Director of Social Impact for Sodexo UK & Ireland, is one leading figure urging employers to see the potential by doing more in this area:

We continuously give our culture a workout, recognising the need to evolve in order to progress, engage, retain and recruit talented colleagues in the belief that talent comes from all walks of life. Our colleagues have undertaken pro bono volunteering through Pilotlight to help some charities doing vital work - generating lasting social impact and feeling tangible benefits across our business. I believe every business should be doing this.

Black women in business

A call to maximise impact

In conclusion, pro bono consulting services present a powerful avenue for professionals to contribute meaningfully to social causes. Maximising impact requires strategic alignment, collaborative partnerships, strategic project scoping, leveraging technology, continuous learning, and addressing challenges for sustainable solutions. By embracing these principles and learning from real-world case studies, pro bono consultants can ensure their contributions have a lasting and transformative impact on non-profits and the communities they serve.

The demand for social impact is growing, accelerating in turn the scope and potential for skilled professionals to drive positive change.

Welcome to the world of pro bono

In a world rife with challenges, its inspiring to find that one of the growing trends is for experts with a range of specialist skills to give their time for free because of the good that they can do. Find out how Pilotlight can support your pro bono journey, whether that's via your business or your own time and skills.

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