Pro bono is dead, long live pro bono!

18th May 2017

Sam Applebee is Founder of Super Global, a Community Interest Company linking creative and tech agencies with non-profits who need their skills. 

This is an edited version of a blog post originally published on Sam's Medium blog.

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Super Global is a community of design, development and data science agencies committed to using their expertise for good.

Before setting up Super Global I spent five years in creative/tech agency land. Everywhere I went I heard grumblings like:

“…we’re doing work for a charity client pro bono and they’re a total nightmare.”

Since then I’ve spoken to a tonne of charities, NGOs and social businesses. The people I meet keep saying things like:

“… we worked with an agency on a project and they just didn’t understand us.”

One passing comment became ten and then thirty. It was too puzzling to ignore. Why didn’t these relationships reflect the mutual desire to do good?

Our raison d’être at Super Global is helping social problem solvers to take full advantage of available technology. We think we can accelerate social sector organisations’ capability to do this by radically improving the quality of collaborations with creative and technology agencies.

I set off on an investigation to understand from both sides what was going wrong. What I found poses the question:

Is it time to put an end to free creative and tech work for social organisations?

probono.jpg

But why is pro bono so common?

There are good reasons that pro bono work has been the default mode of engagement for so long. Running a charity, NGO, nonprofit or social venture is tough work and there’s never enough money in the kitty. These organisations often really struggle to meet the rates commanded in the private sector.

Meanwhile they work incredibly hard to deliver social impact. Surely we should help them out? If a design agency wants to do some work for free, why shouldn’t they? 

Pro bono work can and has achieved some amazing things. On the surface it’s great idea but a closer inspection reveals some important clusters of problems

  1. Agencies and the social sector are bad at working together
  2. Payment is about much more than money
  3. Pro bono shrinks the availability of expertise instead of growing it

The first two problem sets are micro at the level of the relationship. The last is macro and economic in nature. Let’s unpack them one by one.

Agencies and the social sector are bad at working together

Not always, but failed relationships are far more likely than between agencies and private sector companies.

The difficulties seem to be rooted in the differences between individuals. Not everyone working in the social sector is a die-hard altruist but few have spent time working in the technology sector. The opposite is also true. Many agency folk care deeply about social issues but only a small proportion have experience tackling them.

The upshot is limited overlap of organisational cultures and lexicon, and subsequently of working methods and approaches.

Post-mortems we’ve done of failed and (put mildly) strained collaborations frequently point to mis-matched expectations and false — though innocent — assumptions as causes of breakdown.

This baseline of mutual misunderstanding seems to compound the second cluster of problems related to payment.

Payment is about much more than money

Exchanging currency for goods or services creates both a legal and social contract between buyer and seller.

Pricing affects decision making

By setting a price for something the seller’s affirming it’s of satisfactory quality. If a microwave costs £200 it better zap stuff thoroughly. If it was £5 you can expect it to have the heating ability of a spring breeze.

Doing away with pricing removes norms that affect buyers’ ability to make good purchasing decisions.

You can’t just take an app back to the shop for a refund or buy a new one from Amazon in three clicks. Especially not if it was made for free.

Complex services like digital product design and development are governed by a different set of norms that social sector organisations don’t intuitively understand.

It’s fairly safe for electronics stores to presume that a customer buying a microwave knows that it can’t easily be modified to make toast. Likewise that the customer’s savvy enough to know that a microwave is what they really need and not a can opener instead.

This doesn’t hold for charities and NGOs buying creative and technology services. If an agency spends three months building the wrong tech it’s a major problem.

Payment forces commitment

Embarking on an app design and development project requires a high degree of commitment and ownership from both client and supplier.

The less sophisticated each party’s understanding of the other’s business, the more commitment and ownership needed. Even with all the goodwill in the world the supplier has commercial pressures and responsibilities to its staff and other clients.

Taking payment out of the equation increases these pressures and jeopardises the social contract underwriting the relationship.

Often these stresses are perceived as a lack of respect from the other side. Charities and NGOs feel that their suppliers don’t appreciate that their day to day operations have to take ultimate priority whatever the cost to other projects. Agencies feel that their collaborators aren’t trusting their expertise and processes.

In the context of the limited cultural overlap between partners discussed above it makes more sense to frame the respect issue as one of empathy.

There’s no easy way to close the empathy gap but the exchange of money stimulates the kind of commitment that will alleviate the worst symptoms.

Pro bono shrinks the pie instead of growing it

The technology revolution is coming to the social sector. A little late… but better late than never! The potential for social organisations to turbocharge their operations and impact is huge. Very soon they will need to access a great deal more creative and tech expertise. Much of this support will come via agencies.

The maths of running a business dictate that there simply won’t be enough pro bono work to keep pace with demand. There’s already not enough and charities and NGOs are barely even scratching the surface of their digital transformations.

Every time an agency takes on a pro bono project they’re making a significant investment of their own resources. They’re forgoing revenue and shouldering the risk of failure. Noble indeed but what’s needed is drastically more expertise applied to social issues, and pro bono work is really costly to the provider. The incentives are pointing the wrong way.

“But social organisations can’t pay top dollar for services!” — I hear you cry. Correct in many cases, but they do have some budget, so the trick to increasing the supply of expertise is shifting would-be pro bono work into an attainable, sustainable price range.

Remove the disincentive for working with charities and NGOs. Make the pie bigger for the sector as a whole. And who doesn’t like pie?

So should we kill pro bono?

As we’ve seen there are several major flaws to agencies working with social organisations for free. However attractive the proposition, the fact remains that some causes slip through economic cracks and will never have enough funding to afford working with quality creative and technology partners.

What’s clear is that both social sector buyers and suppliers of complex creative and tech services should think carefully before engaging in pro bono relationships.

So if you must go pro bono, practice safe pro bono.

Practising safe pro bono

The awesome Jonty of product & service design agency Hactar has produced an excellent guide to improving pro bono work. Here’s a summary:

Organisations: “Articulate what’s needed — Write a brief. If you’ve never written one before.”

Suppliers: “Act responsibly — Treat the organisation receiving pro bono effort in exactly the same way you would that dream client.”

Suppliers: “Be thoughtful — Just because there’s no money on the table don’t treat this like canvas for all those ideas your paying clients have rejected.”

Organisations: “Don’t just do it — If you’re going to accept pro bono work, treat the supplier in exactly the same way you would were you paying them for their services.”

Both: “Invest in legal — Contracts and SOWs … plenty of people think that this kind of documentation is restrictive and bureaucratic, but they’re there to provide a structure and a level of reassurance.”

Suppliers: “Show some respect — Sadly respect isn’t a one way thing. It’s up to organisations to commit to a process, too.”

Organisations: “Ask around — Don’t be afraid to get a second opinion. Be diplomatic, and remember that there are many ways to approach the design and build process.”

Suppliers: “Develop a long term relationship and a phased approach to delivery — Definitely a bit of challenge if you’re delivering pro bono as a downtime thing. I’m not saying you need to be working together forever, but please look at delivering over a period of time.”

Suppliers: “Make it portable — It may be that you’ll be free to help out again in future or that you’re keen to be that organisation’s digital partner. You might not.”

Suppliers: “Take pride in your work — Make the thing you provide performant. Over 100 requests to load a homepage is not good enough.”

Organisations: “Kick the tyres — Do a bit of due diligence. If you’re being offered help with a digital thing by a print agency, do make sure they know how to build stuff properly.”

Suppliers: “Avoid proprietary tech solutions — Open Source. You really shouldn’t be tying your clients to proprietary stuff. It’s not fair, and this process is really all about being fair.”

Organisations: “Everything has a price — While this engagement might not be costing you anything, be aware of the value of the work.”

Both: “Build strong relationships — If you enter into a pro bono relationship candidly, and with clear, well articulated goals and outcomes, the risk of things turning sour can be dramatically reduced.”

Read Jonty’s full article here.

So there you have it. Outright killing pro bono doesn’t seem sensible, but in order to give more charities and NGOs access to the top quality creative and tech expertise they so desperately need, free work has to become the exception instead of the norm.

Email Sam on hello@superglobal.io.

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