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Volunteer consulting and the transformation of non-profits

In recent years, a pro bono revolution has been reshaping the landscape of non-profits, introducing a paradigm shift in the way they leverage professional expertise. This article explores the dynamic intersection of volunteer consulting and charity action.

The numbers are impressive

Skills-based volunteering, according to the 2023 NCVO Time Well Spent research, has risen by 20% in the UK since the start of the pandemic.

This rise of skills-based volunteering reflects a genuine shift in the way that workplace volunteering, in particular, is unfolding. This includes a welcome turn away from the team-building outings to pick litter, paint fences or do gardening.

There is always a role for unskilled volunteers like this from the workplace, but only if they are done properly. Charities now stress the importance of starting with their needs rather than shoehorning them into something that is simply about getting people out of the workplace for a change. The difference is that with pro bono volunteering, people are using their professional skills and helping charities to access specialist skills that they need.

The COVID pandemic was a genuine boost to pro bono action in two ways. First, when employees were put on furlough, many looked to see how they could bring their skills to bear to promote community action and there was a wave of positive innovation that came out of this. Secondly, it accelerated a shift from in-person to virtual volunteering, that made it far more straightforward to match people with skills to non-profits looking for those skills.

Research by Pilotlight suggests that there is the potential for skills-based volunteering to scale more rapidly still, becoming an even more powerful potential source of support.

Around 6 million people (21% of the workforce) are putting their work skills into use on a voluntary basis and a further 50% would like to volunteer using their occupational or professional skills. Of those who volunteer with the support of their employer are around twice as likely to be People of the Global Majority as the population at large (23% compared to 12%).

Perhaps most intriguingly, of those currently involved in skills-based volunteering in the workplace, 79% believe that businesses themselves benefit from the practice.

A black man sitting on a wall

The rise of pro bono in non-profits

Historically, of course, charities have relied on traditional models of fundraising and philanthropy to sustain their operations. Financial contributions remain vital. But the pro bono revolution introduces a new dimension—strategic, skills-based volunteering. Through this, professionals from diverse fields, including finance, marketing, technology, and management, are contributing their expertise to non-profits, bringing a wealth of knowledge and experience to address complex challenges.

Strategic empowerment

Volunteer consulting goes beyond the traditional volunteer role by providing charities with access to high-calibre professionals. These individuals bring strategic insights and problem-solving skills, empowering non-profits to navigate challenges with precision and innovation. Whether it's developing a marketing strategy, optimising operational processes, or enhancing financial management, pro bono volunteers can play a critical role in strengthening the core capabilities of non-profits.

Capacity building

Non-profits often operate under tight budget constraints, limiting their ability to invest in professional services. Pro bono consulting addresses this resource gap by offering non-profits access to skills and knowledge they might not afford otherwise. This capacity-building aspect is pivotal for organisations aiming to scale their impact and achieve long-term sustainability.

Cross-sector collaboration

The pro bono revolution fosters collaboration between the for-profit and non-profit sectors. Companies are encouraging their employees to engage in volunteer consulting, recognising the value of contributing not only financial resources but also professional expertise to social causes. This cross-pollination of ideas and skills creates a bridge between different sectors, fostering a culture of shared responsibility and mutual benefit.

Innovation and efficiency

Volunteer consultants bring a fresh perspective to the challenges faced by charities. Their diverse backgrounds and experiences contribute to a culture of innovation, introducing new ideas and approaches to problem-solving. This infusion of creativity not only enhances the efficiency of non-profit operations but also cultivates a mindset of continuous improvement and adaptability.

Long-term sustainability

By strategically empowering non-profits and building their capacity, volunteer consulting contributes to the long-term sustainability of these organisations. Pro bono initiatives focus on strengthening the underlying structures and capabilities of non-profits, ensuring they can weather challenges and continue making a meaningful impact over time.

Case studies

To illustrate the tangible impact of the pro bono revolution, we can explore a couple of case studies that highlight the transformative power of volunteer consulting in non-profit settings.

Systems Overhaul

Disablement Association Hillingdon (DASH) encourages disabled people of all ages to reach their full potential. Vanessa Bonner, CEO of DASH, was aware that their systems did not allow the charity to track the journey of their beneficiaries through their projects and services. As a result, they were unable to measure their true social impact. Nervous about the costs of new systems, she turned to Pilotlight for pro bono support to identify a positive way forward.

A team of six volunteers from Barclays came together to answer the exam question set for them: “how can DASH most effectively track its service user journey and the impact of its work?” Over ten weeks, they worked to come up with some practical ways forward.

As a result of the programme, DASH has secured funding from The National Lottery Community Fund and implemented all the recommendations. Vanessa commented:

For a small organisation like ours, this is invaluable… Without this project and the support, I am certain that we would not have been able to demonstrate the need and obtain this funding.

Asian man playing pool

Income diversification

Castlehaven Community Association (CCA) is a small, vibrant charity with a high profile in its local community. Services include after school and youth provision, activities for older people, environmental and horticultural projects. Following two pro bono projects facilitated by Pilotlight, the charity has developed a sports facility and a community nursery as new services, with new income attached. Eleanor Botwright, charity CEO, talks about the impact working with Pilotlight has had on the charity's sustainability:

The projects have proved to have had a phenomenal impact on the charity both in terms of governance and aspiration. Pilotlight has given CCA a future!

Pilotlight Partner Charity Castlehaven Community Association

The future impact of pro bono consulting

The potential for further growth and impact through the pro bono revolution is impressive and if so, the field will have a lasting impact on the landscape of support for charities and social enterprises. Three trends point to this future, realising the transformative potential of volunteer consulting.

Technology and virtual volunteering

The digital age has facilitated the rise of virtual volunteering, allowing skilled professionals to contribute remotely. Research by NCVO suggests that satisfaction with virtual volunteering is as high as for other, in-person forms of volunteering, suggesting that remote volunteering is here to stay. As technology continues to advance, virtual pro bono consulting may become even more prevalent, enabling non-profits to tap into a global pool of talent and expertise.


Just as, in other fields, people expect choice and convenience, so in the field of volunteering, there has been a rise in interest in ways to enable people to take on short projects in simple, technology-enabled ways, such as through online calendars. Digital Candle is an example of a pro bono micro-volunteering platform and the good news is that models such as this appear to be popular with non-profits as well.

AI and natural language processing

As Pro Bono Economics has argued in the findings of its Law Family Commission, the landscape of support for charities is fragmented and this has been a challenge for charities. Often there is support out there but people don’t know about it. Cranfield Trust, for example, found that there is a wide range of free management training available for small charities – but people don’t necessarily know that they can access this. In this context, by working with the diversity of ways in which people might think about or articulate a need for pro bono support, the emergence of natural language processing and AI options offer a way to cut through complexity and find the support you need. The Charity Excellence Framework offers ways to do this, with a pioneering approach using AI bunnies (bots) to guide the user to the support they need.

Corporate Social Responsibility integration

The shape of the pro bono revolution reflects a change in gear in terms of the engagement of the for-profit and non-profit sector. As part of this, at least for companies which recognise the importance of corporate social responsibility (CSR), pro bono volunteering is becoming an integral part of CSR initiatives.

The future may see even more of an attempted alignment between corporate goals and societal impact, with businesses actively encouraging and facilitating pro bono engagements for their employees. One example is the field of climate and sustainability, where we estimate a need for 100,000 skilled climate volunteers from business to support non-profits advance solutions for positive action.

A group of Morgan Stanley employees posing for a photo

Skills-based training for non-profit professionals

Focusing on major challenges, such as climate change, also helps to shine a light on where pro bono support can make a difference not through individual projects but through multipliers such as skills training. Ultimately, the goal is to equip society to be able to advance social inclusion or environmental sustainability with the skills needed to do so. Some of these will be paid roles in the voluntary sector – or in the private sector where there is an overlapping purpose. Some will be through pro bono volunteer consulting. Skills-based training connects the two. So for example, Pro Bono Economics runs Unlocking Impact Workshops using the skills of economists to support charities into a better understanding of the ways in which they can measure and demonstrate the impact and value of their activity.  

As volunteer consulting becomes an integral part of the non-profit ecosystem, it has ripple effects that can extend beyond individual projects, contributing to a more resilient, empowered, and impactful charitable landscape. As such, the pro bono revolution is not just a trend—it's a powerful movement shaping the future of social impact.

The world needs your talent

Pilotlight is a charity that amplifies the impact charities, business and individuals can bring to make a better world. Our programmes see business experts share their expertise with charities, bringing new perspectives and learning for both sides, to help charities thrive. Since 1996, we’ve helped over 1,000 charities tackling social disadvantage to ignite change that lasts.

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