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Pro bono: A powerful force for good

We can all do things that are priceless and pro bono is one such thing, using your time and skills unpaid to help others.

Pro bono, derived from a Latin term meaning "for the public good," has become a powerful and integral part of various fields, from law to business to healthcare. It involves individuals and organisations volunteering their professional skills and expertise to support non-profit initiatives, underserved communities, and social causes.

Pro bono is not a household term as yet. In our research, four out of five people (81%) recognise the term ‘pro bono’ for example, but they don’t necessarily know what it means. Only one in five (22%) associate the term with support for charities or the public good.

A small number of people, around one in 36 (2.78%), believe that the term ‘pro bono’ means that you are a fan of the rock band U2…

There are other terms that are often used, including ‘skills-based volunteering’. Three quarters of employees (77%) in the private sector for example believe that their business should be supportive of their staff taking time to volunteer.

And there is other language too. Some firms offer discounts on their services for example and call it ‘low bono’ when they are charging but at a reduced rate to charities. But we tend to exclude this from the data we collect on the field, seeing pro bono action at root as a free contribution of time and knowledge that helps to do good.

Defining pro bono

Pro bono, abbreviated from "pro bono publico," is a Latin phrase that translates to "for the public good" or "for the common good." It represents a voluntary contribution of professional services, skills, or expertise to benefit the public, typically without compensation. The term is most commonly associated with the legal profession, where lawyers provide free legal assistance to individuals or organisations who cannot afford legal representation. However, pro bono has expanded its reach into various domains beyond law.

The formal definition that we use here at Pilotlight is that “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.”

The evolution of pro bono

Pro bono work has evolved over time and now encompasses a wide range of professions and industries. While it has a deep-rooted history in the legal sector, pro bono contributions have become a significant force for good across diverse fields, including:

  • Legal services

Legal pro bono work involves lawyers providing free legal advice or representation to individuals who cannot afford legal services. The need for such support has grown as the state has cut back on legal aid. This can cover various areas of law, such as family law, immigration law, or human rights law. It also covers legal advice given for free to charities, for example through LawWorks in the UK.

  • Consulting services

Management and strategy consultants offer pro bono consulting to non-profit organisations, helping them improve their operations, develop strategies, and achieve their missions more effectively. This can be done directly by individuals or organised through systematic programmes, such as those we run here at Pilotlight.

  • Business and technology

Professionals in business and technology often engage in pro bono work by sharing their expertise with non-profit organisations. This can include offering guidance on marketing, data analysis, or technology implementation. This often forms part of a wider movement around ‘tech for good’.

  • Healthcare

Medical professionals, including doctors and nurses, have a proud tradition of giving support where it is needed, including volunteering overseas or in response to disasters. Health firms also engage in pro bono support with healthcare charities, who bring people with specific conditions together for mutual aid or campaign or fundraise for medical research.

  • Mentorship and education

Back to school anyone? Many individuals and a number of firms offer their time to mentor and educate underserved or disadvantaged youth, at school age or beyond. This can involve tutoring, coaching, or providing career guidance.

  • Design and creative arts

Graphic designers, artists, and writers often donate their creative talents to non-profit organisations. They may design promotional materials, create artwork for events, or write content for social initiatives.

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The significance of pro bono

Because money does not change hands, it is easy to overlook the value of unpaid work in today’s economy and society. If you assume that money is the primary measure of value, then of course you would discount the value of services given for free. But from a wider lens of social and economic value, pro bono work has genuine significance for several compelling reasons:

  • Addressing unmet needs

Pro bono services fill a critical gap by providing assistance to individuals and organisations that would otherwise go without essential services, such as legal representation or professional guidance.

  • Enhancing access to justice

In the legal field, pro bono services contribute to equal access to justice. They ensure that individuals with limited financial means can still receive legal support, thus promoting fairness and justice.

  • Capacity building

Pro bono efforts can build the capacity of non-profit organisations. They often lack the resources to access specialised skills and expertise. Pro bono contributions help these organisations become more effective in fulfilling their missions.

  • Professional development

For those providing pro bono services, it offers opportunities for skill development and personal growth. It can also enhance one's professional reputation and provide a sense of fulfilment.

  • Strengthening communities

Pro bono work fosters a sense of community and social responsibility. It encourages individuals and organisations to give back, thereby strengthening the social fabric of society.

Pilotlight Partner Charity Volunteer It Yourself

Examples of pro bono initiatives

There are over 30 pro bono organisations in the UK that come together as members of the Pro Bono Association, convened by Cranfield Trust, Pilotlight and Reach. They include many great examples of professions and networks that are using pro bono as a tool for positive action. These include:

DataKind UK

Part of an international network of organisations focusing on data and the public good, Datakind UK run a series of programmes with skilled volunteers to support charities to improve their data capabilities, from understanding their beneficiaries through to using service data to support effective advocacy.

Getting on Board

This charity supports people to become charity trustees, with a particular focus on widening the representation of trustees across those who are under-represented at present, including young people, people of colour, disabled people, LGBTQ+ people, working class people and people with lived experience of disenfranchisement.

Kilfinan Trust

The Kilfinan Group is a circle of senior business people who provide free and informal mentoring to charity chief executives. The Group was founded by Nicholas Ferguson CBE, Chairman of Savills pls in 2003.

Media Trust

The charity works with the media and creative industry to provide capacity building for charities through skilled volunteers and to empower young people with diverse backgrounds to work in the industry.

Whitehall and Industry Group

The charity supports people from across different sectors to come together for mutual gain. Alongside its events and leadership programmes, it curates opportunities for skills-based volunteering, including through secondments and mentoring, both well recognised across government departments.

Challenges and considerations

While pro bono work is a valuable force for good, it does come with some challenges and considerations:

  • Resource allocation

Pro bono work requires an allocation of time and resources, both for individuals and organisations. Businesses may need to provide support to employees engaged in pro bono activities.

  • Skill matching

Taking time to ensure a good match between the skills of the volunteer and the needs of the non-profit organisation is crucial for successful pro bono work.

  • Power balance

Because professional expertise can be exclusive or elitist and because the client is not paying for a service, there are risks that pro bono gets the power balance wrong. But for the impact to be positive after the work is complete, it is important that power and knowledge is passed from the pro bono giver to the receiver.

  • Sustainability

There are pro bono initiatives that are started when people have time, or a grant to get going, but then they fade away. To be effective, pro bono must be sustainable and scalable, ensuring long-term support for underserved communities and non-profit organisations.

  • Recognition and support

Pro bono professionals often volunteer their services without expecting recognition or rewards. However, acknowledging and supporting their efforts can enhance their motivation and impact. Finding authentic ways to say ‘thank you’ goes a long way.

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A different form of work – skills sharing

Pro bono work has evolved from its origins in the legal field to become a powerful force for good in various domains. It is not a job in quite the same way as any other, because removing money changes some of the ways in which people view work, in terms of status, and it opens up new ways of understanding value and setting relationships.

Instead of money, there are shared values. Instead of an employment contract, there is mutual commitment.

Pro bono action also provides opportunities for skill development and personal growth for those who volunteer their professional expertise. It is for this reason that, at Pilotlight, we see pro bono as a form of ‘skills sharing’, a mutual exchange formed to benefit the public good but through which both parties can benefit.

Ready to start your pro bono journey?

“I wanted to bring new people to the table,” is how celebrated social entrepreneur Jane Tewson described her decision to set up Pilotlight. Since then, we’ve connected over 180 businesses and 3,000 volunteers with over 1,000 charities to ignite change that lasts.

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