The Futures of Pro-Bono

Imagining Futures with Models of Impact

Jake Dunagan and Matthew Manos


A. The History and Implications of Pro-Bono:

Pro bono publico, for the public good, has a long and noble history. The term (and practice) has usually been associated with those working in law, but the idea of doing “good” in the business world is growing beyond the legal profession. A diverse range of product and service providers is picking it up. A comprehensive overview of these pro-social business design innovations can be found in verynice’s Models of Impact maps.

As a model, pro-bono began when the German Society of New York launched an organization that had the specific goal of protecting recent German immigrants from exploitation in the states. The dedication to leverage legal aid as a means to protect those who could not access protection was soon extended well outside of the German immigrant population and eventually the Legal Aid Society of New York was founded in 1890.

In 1919, legal activist Reginald Heber Smith wrote a text titled “Justice and the Poor” that was crucial in advancing the argument for the necessity of pro-bono. This article eventually inspired the American Bar Association to create the Special Committee on Legal Aid Work, inspiring many law firms to engage in pro-bono work. Within a generation, pro-bono became prevalent in fields outside of the legal industry, including notably the formation of the Ad Council, a non-profit organization dedicated to the development of public service advertisements (PSAs). To deliver these critical and iconic messages (think Smokey the Bear) to the American public, many key advertising agencies and design firms participated on a pro-bono basis.

To this day, non-profit organizations and government agencies continue to practice pro-bono in order to gather the same kind of response that more privileged clients can have as a result of their marketing and design budgets. Further, pro-bono has served as a catalyst for the now standard practice of a for-profit business’ attempt to integrate social impact into their day-to-day operations. But why do we need pro-bono now? And will we need it in the future?

“The world is getting better and better, and worse and worse, faster and faster.” -Tom Atlee

Tom Atlee’s observation beautifully captures the contradictions, paradoxes, opportunities, and anxieties of change many of us feel these days. If you want to find hope for the future, it is easily found. If you dread the looming disaster and civilization-level catastrophes we are facing, you can find those signs all around us. When we live with such ambiguity, it can confound and paralyze us, or it can challenge and liberate us. Therefore, how we frame ‘the future’ matters more than ever. The metaphors, references, language, images, and visions we use to make sense of change have real, present, tangible effects on the way we think, how we behave, and the decisions we make.

Pro bono is a way to both describe a practice and an ethos. It is a big idea. It has enough clarity to be understood broadly, but it is capacious enough to include many variations of how “good” can be done. Ultimately, pro bono is about giving — time, services, and other resources — with the manifest goal of improving society in some direct way. It can be more or less formalized, and it can scale from the level of individuals (such as legal representation) to global initiatives for social impact (such as volunteer programs like the Peace Corps).

Relatively recent innovations, such as social entrepreneurship, impact investing, sharing economy, collaborative consumption, and strategic reciprocity are all part of an emerging ‘web of good’ that is attempting to harness business, social, and technological tools to win the race against the forces of greed, corruption, and cooptation. Good is growing faster and faster, but so is desperation and precarity.

“Without equal access to the law, the system not only robs the poor of their only protection, but it places in the hands of their oppressors the most powerful and ruthless weapon ever created.” — Reginald Heber Smith

The idea of a noble good racing against the forces of decay and corruption already leaves us exhausted. The idea of pro bono, however, is built upon values of duty, to be sure, but it also contains notions of abundance, and exuberance. Pro bono can have strategic advantages, but the driving force is the goal for individuals to do right by society by becoming better people. Being “human” in today’s business world remains difficult, but it doesn’t stop people from seeking out ways to do just that. Pro bono feels like a very human act of giving a damn about the future, and doing something about it today.

Pro bono futurum is the idea that if we give our time and skills away (at whatever level or capacity we can) to institutions and practices that improve society, that those institutions will thrive and that future generations will benefit from these efforts. Pro bono isn’t free, and it requires hard work and sacrifice from its practitioners. The feedback mechanisms may be noisy, long, or even non-existent for us in the present, but we have to put some measure of trust that our actions will have systemic positive impact. A commitment to pro bono futurum could very likely pay off for most current and future generations, but it has definite pays off for one’s personal well-being and work satisfaction. With a side effect like that, pro bono is a medicine we should all be taking.

B. The Key Trends and Emerging Issues in Pro-Bono Service:

As Pro-Bono matures within the social enterprise community, and more models emerge that serve as various methodologies for approaching this model of impact, new issues and aspirations within the practice naturally arise. The following are five of the major trends we have noted through an in-depth study into the field, which includes conversations with practitioners and recipients of pro-bono as well as a cross-examination of pro-bono’s position within the social enterprise ecosystem as a whole.

Moving from “Gift” to “Exchange”: As we explored, historically, pro-bono has been most synonymous with charitable action, or even with volunteerism. However, just as we are finding that “social impact” has become much more synonymous with business acumen and private-sector interests, we are finding that pro-bono has begun to be leveraged as business development tool. For example, studios and consultancies leverage pro-bono engagements to develop/prototype new client services and to build their portfolios in industries of interest. Consultancies also leverage the networks of pro-bono clients for paid project referrals and high-potential introductions to larger corporate clients. There is much more opportunity for reciprocity and equal exchange in this model, rather than a charity model that moves resources in a single direction from those who have, to those who have not.

Differentiating “Spec” and “Pro-Bono” work: Especially in the creative industries, community organizations such as the AIGA have historically been against participation in pro-bono engagements due to a conflation of “spec work” and “pro-bono work”. However, we are beginning to see more of a welcoming attitude toward pro-bono work in recent years; institutionalizing the concept of pro-bono as a service that is solely reserved for a non-profit clientele further differentiates it from speculative work, since spec work is reserved for a for-profit/private sector client-base.

Marrying Pro-Bono with Social Enterprise: As the social enterprise movement grows, we have seen many new models emerge, primarily in the product-oriented business space. However, as there has been more growing interest in social enterprise amongst consultants and service-oriented business practitioners, pro-bono has emerged as one of a handful of models of impact that are beginning to be framed as a valid approach to social entrepreneurship and social innovation. This re-framing of the practice has empowered the community to innovate within the scope of “pro-bono”, resulting in an exciting development and advancement in the design of new business models.

“Pro-Bono” as “Team-Building”: Thanks in part to the research and activism of organizations such as the Taproot Foundation, pro-bono is growing significantly as a practice to be leveraged strategically by larger, multi-national corporations as a method for team building under the scope of “Human Resources.” Large companies, such as Disney, Wells Fargo, and HP have begun investing more in pro-bono experiences as a tool for developing their staff’s professional and personal goals. Pro-bono as a method of professional development and talent acquisition is a growing trend spread wildly among the Fortune 500 class.

“Pro-Bono” as “Social Production”: With roots in the legal industry, pro-bono was initially seen as a side-project/extra curricular activity to take place in the downtime of a consultant’s 9–5 practice. However, now that pro-bono is becoming integral within businesses, new models of production and bandwidth allocation have emerged. One significant trend is an approach known as “social production,” which calls for a networked execution approach that has allowed businesses to work with remote volunteers on a per-project basis to complete the work for their pro-bono clientele.

C. The Key Trends and Emerging Issues in Social Entrepreneurship:

In addition to the five trends highlighted in section B, it is important to also note five additional trends that are affecting the social enterprise eco-system as a whole. Through our research and development work on the Models of Impact project, the following have been the strongest themes and changes to emerge:

The Race for a New Vocabulary: A few years ago, a controversy emerged within the Social Enterprise community when SalesForce attempted to trademark the term. “Social Enterprise” as a term has shifted drastically in the last 10 years thanks to the rise in social networking and social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. More and more, the term, “social,” in the context of social enterprise, is misunderstood as a term that speaks to networked businesses. As a result, a new trend has emerged within the practice that attempts to re-name the field to something more fitting such as Impact Business, Social Impact Entrepreneurship, Models of Impact, For-Good Business, Triple-Bottom-Line Company, and so on.

Rise in Critical Consumption: As products and services that generate social impact have become more commonplace in the private sector, the novelty of these approaches has greatly diminished. As a result, a growing class of critical consumers , who are greatly changing the landscape and expectations of social entrepreneurs, has emerged. A great recent example of this is TOMS Shoes, a business that donates one pair of shoes for every pair of shoes the customer buys. After much scrutiny over their manufacturing practices, the company began producing the shoes in the communities they serve, thereby creating jobs in developing countries. This shift was thanks to an outcry from their supporters, pushing them to do even more good in the world, in the best way possible.

Quantifying Impact and “Accrediting” Social Enterprise: In many ways, this third trend is the result of a growing class of critical consumers. As social entrepreneurship has become a more popular business methodology, we have begun to see more certification programs, such as the B-Corporation, emerge. In addition, a growing challenge and implication of certification practices has been a need to understand how to best quantify and measure the impact of social enterprises in order to understand what makes a social enterprise “good” or “not good.” As we have also seen a rise in “Impact Investing Firms”, essentially angel investors or VC firms who focus on seeing a return on impact, we suspect some exciting innovations to emerge around impact assessment in the near future.

Re-Defining “Value”: One implication/trend that has come of the rise of the Sharing Economy as well as the new demands and expectations of the millennial generation is a re-defining of “value” and “ownership”. This shift in culture and consumer expectations/desires has paved the way for a more open dialogue around concepts like social entrepreneurship and pro-bono. We expect to continue seeing new economies emerge that are not as reliant on monetary value as previous economies have been.

D. Where Pro-Bono Could Go:

What if pro-bono is just another “social” fad that will be crushed by more traditional business concerns and practices? Or, what if it is an early signal of a coming transformation to the whole practice of business and capitalism that we’ve known for generations?

It is a fool’s game to try and predict a single future, but we must prepare for a range of alternative futures and move to build toward the future we want to see in the world. The trends and emerging practices mentioned above, and many others, show us that pro-bono could take one of several plausible directions (and maybe several directions at once).

Growth: Pro-bono has become the beacon of how socially minded business gets done in the 21st Century. It is not just an ornamental add-on to more standard ways of business, but becomes integral to business strategy at most companies, and certainly at the most successful. Pro-bono opens the doors of creativity and good will in markets around the world, and shows leaders that people and profits are not always in competition.

Collapse: Pro-bono is often derided in the same ways hippie communes are now — the product of idealism and exuberance, but not ready to deal with the sometimes hard and serious challenges we face as a society. There was some hope early on that it might take off as a movement, but as opportunists and marketers corrupted it on one end, investors and competitors outperformed it on the other. Maybe there will be other ways to deliver on social good in the business world, but pro-bono is not it.

Discipline: Pro-bono is making solid inroads into business practice in many different sectors, playing an important, but limited role in most companies. There are now 57% of fortune 500 companies who have signed on the 5% pro-bono pledge, and many examples of how this commitment of skilled talent has paid off for social good. But business is mostly run in the same model as it has been for ages, with a larger portion of the “exhaust” going to good causes.

Transformation: The pro-bono movement was just the perturbation needed to shift the entire market economy into a different model. It is almost impossible to remember a time when companies used full-time employees to create valuable products and services that were bought and sold with government issued currency. Now we see a global hive of talent-seekers algorithmically matched with skilled labor and their work is distributed for maximal benefit to maximal numbers of people.

E. Where Pro-Bono Should Go:

Informed by the histories, futures, and present-day trends that have been highlighted in this study from the Models of Impact research team, we can only promise that the field of pro-bono will continue to grow throughout the service-oriented business community. Pro-bono should be leveraged by every major corporation as a tool for staff development. Pro-bono should be a standard practice in the field of design, as it is in the legal industry. Pro-bono should be leveraged within academic institutions as a way for students to immediately apply their education to real-world clientele who could benefit immediately from their skills and work.

Every year, in the United States alone, non-profit organizations will spend over 8 billion dollars on marketing and design services. The future we would like to see? What if every single one of those 8 billion dollars was replaced with pro-bono offerings from the creative industries? This would result in a serious impact on some of the world’s most persistent problems as it will allow organizations to immediately allocate more resources toward their cause while still getting access to the same great design and marketing services they require. Together we can make this simple commitment in order to drive change and grow pro-bono as a model of impact in the social enterprise community.

On the Models of Impact Map v3, the majority of pro-bono business models land in the space of in-direct impact that is integral to a company’s mission/culture.
F. Appendix — The Models of Impact that Exist in Pro-Bono:

The following is a list of ten models that serve as the most prominent practices found in pro-bono work within businesses and non-profit organizations as found using the Models of Impact map. These models range in impact when implemented — from serving as a non-integral approach to impact to an integral approach to impact. However, what all of these models have in common is that, as approaches found in the consulting/service-oriented business space, they are having an indirect impact on causes and organizations. As this is an evolving field, we are excited to continue collecting models and brands that represent new emerging approaches.

Open Source (services): Services and research findings or methodologies that have been made openly available for all individuals/companies/organizations to use freely. Example Brands: Vera Solutions, OneDegree, FSG
Sharing Economy: A collaborative economy that is built around the concept of sharing physical or intellectual resources between peers. Example Brands: Burning Man, Task Rabbit, Uber, Lyft, Airbnb, Good Things Everywhere
Give Half (pro-bono): A model that allows service-providers to increase company bandwidth while simultaneously lowering overall company overhead in order to allocate time and resources toward a 50% pro-bono commitment. Example Brands: verynice, No Typical Moments, Impact Rising, Soul Bucket
Give Some (pro-bono): Businesses in the service-oriented space that occasionally offer pro-bono services, but do not have a standardized/institutionalized amount of time or resources allocated. Example Brand: Deloitte
Crowd-source/Intermediary (pro-bono or volunteerism): An organization that serves as a connecting point between service providers or volunteers and organizations or communities in need. Example Brands: Taproot Foundation, Catchafire, MobileWorks, Volunteer Match
The 1% Program (pro-bono): A business model popularized in the architecture discipline in which firms make a commitment to donate 1% of all time/resources toward pro-bono projects to better the community. Example Brands: Gensler, Cannon Architects
Marathons (pro-bono): Also known as “done in a day.” A model in which service-providers undertake a pro-bono project in one intensive session that typically lasts for 24 hours and leverages all human resources for that day to maximize impact. Example Brands: Global Service Jam, CreateAthon
Loaned Employee (pro-bono): A program, typically leveraged by large companies, in which employees are “loaned” for a temporary/pre-determined period of time to a non-profit organization in order to complete a project or solve an organizational problem from an outsider perspective. Example Brands: PWC, Microsoft, IBM
Sliding Scale Engagements (pro-bono): Businesses in the service-oriented business space that scale their “market rates” on a per-project basis in order to allow the services to be more accessible to those who cannot afford them. Example Brands: Planned Parenthood
Non Skills-Based Volunteerism: A program, typically leveraged by large companies, in which employees are invited to join an expedition to give back to their community in a non skills-based approach (for example, cleaning a beach). Example Brands: Disney, Sony, Target
G. About the Authors

Matthew Manos, Founder and Research Director, Models of Impact. Founder and Global Strategy Lead, verynice.— Matthew is an advisor and author who is dedicated to disrupting the economic models of service-oriented business. He is the founder of verynice, a global design, strategy, and foresight studio that gives half of its work away for free to non-profit organizations around the world. Named one of “Seven Millennials Changing the World” by The Huffington Post, Matthew has his work and ideas published in 250+ print and online venues internationally including Forbes, The Guardian, Inc, GOOD, and MTV. He is also the author of “How to Give Half of Your Work Away for Free,” an internationally-distributed documentation of verynice’s 50% pro-bono business model and the subsequent “Give Half Movement” that has attracted over 13,000 readers across 2,800 cities. Matthew is also the Founder of Models of Impact, and online tool and workshop methodology that has helped over 10,000 entrepreneurs, businesses, and organizations design their own unique business models. With 10 years of experience, Matthew is a trusted advisor and has been a mentor to hundreds of entrepreneurs, executives, and young designers from around the world. He holds a BA in Design Media Arts from UCLA (2010) and an MFA in Media Design from the Art Center College of Design (2012).

Jake Dunagan, Global Foresight Lead, verynice — Jake is an experiential futurist, governance designer, and teacher. He is Global Foresight Lead and Managing Director of the Austin office for verynice. His work has been centered on the concept of social invention and novel methods to help individuals, organizations, and governing institutions re-imagine and re-invent their futures. He has worked with governments, businesses, foundations, and non-profits around the world. Recent research projects include the future of social entrepreneurship, applied embodied cognition, judicial foresight, kid’s technologies, intellectual property law, service innovation, and the future of work. He has helped create tools to increase citizen participation in political system design, and he also creates visual media, interactive experiences, and public engagement projects that inject alternative visions of the future into the present. Jake holds a Ph.D. from the University of Hawaii, Manoa with special focus on neuropolitics, governance design, alternative futures, and communication of foresight. He has an MA from Temple University and a BA from Auburn University, both in visual anthropology. He is currently an adjunct professor in the Design Strategy MBA program at the California College of the Arts, where he teaches strategic foresight, tactical media, and social invention.

Special Thanks: Renae Getlin, Overall Awesome Editor + Proof-Reader. Bora Shin, Overall Awesome Support + Brain Trust.