Could pro bono save the world?

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You don’t have to look too far right now to find talk of crisis, whether it is the cost of living, the state of national politics or the climate emergency. The mood of the nation is not one of joy right now, so, it may feel inappropriate to write about hope, or perhaps it may also feel like an antidote.  

Here is the hope. The legal profession is celebrating Pro Bono Week as I write, and it may just be that they are onto something.

Using your skills for the common good is not something that has traditionally been seen as a way to get ahead, but of 153,000 practicing solicitors, pro bono is growing fast and there are around 9,000 now that are active, skilled volunteers. When training as a solicitor, for example, you can now get credits for helping out at pro bono clinics.

The model of pro bono has spread across other professions and businesses too, and working at the pro bono charity Pilotlight, I have taken a look at what pro bono is happening and what it could do for the world.

Our focus is bringing business experts in to support charities. Pilotlight has worked with around 1,000 charities and we’ve developed partnerships with over 180 of the UK’s top businesses including Barclays, Ipsos Mori, Lendlease, Morgan Stanley, Sodexo and KPMG.

We also have a longstanding partnership with Garfield Weston Foundation – the Weston Charity Awards, now open, which offers pro bono support and a grant of £6,500 to social and environmental charities in Wales, the Midlands and North of England.

Our impact results show that two years on from support through the Pilotlight 360 programme, charities, on average, increase their income by 44 per cent and their reach (the number of beneficiaries) by 30 per cent.

For our pro bono volunteers, we call them Pilotlighters, supporting charities is a way to give back, but also a unique learning experience. The learning outcomes we track, for Pilotlighters and for charity leaders, include:

  • coaching and listening skills
  • understanding of different leadership styles
  •  understanding of society and different sectors.

Pro bono action of this form is on the rise. Last year, in collaboration with others including Cranfield Trust and Reach Volunteering, Pilotlight formed a new collaborative network, the UK Pro Bono Association. This brings together 34 organisations that promote skills-based volunteering. Some are focused on specific professions, such as law, property or accountancy, others on specific sectors to support, such as education or homelessness.

Together in the last year, these engaged professionals to support 8,300 charities and social enterprises. For many, changes in patterns of work have helped to boost levels of pro bono action. One shift prompted by the pandemic for example has been from in-person volunteering to the growing opportunities of virtual volunteering.

As a result perhaps, there is evidence of a growing appetite to get involved among workers. In our survey:

  • three quarters of employees (77%) believe that employers should be supportive of their staff taking time to volunteer.
  • 79% believe that businesses themselves benefit from employee volunteering.
  • 82% say volunteering develops their work skills and knowledge.

There is a growing need from charities too, caught in the challenges of supporting vulnerable people in the cost of living crisis. Seven out of ten small and medium-sized charities say that they are actively looking for pro bono professional skills to support what they do – but only four out of ten find it.

We estimate the total potential added value of pro bono action for charities in the UK, assuming full participation of those who would like to volunteer and for an average of one hour a week, is £17.25 billion pa (estimate at mid-point values).

This would represent a sixfold increase in the value of contribution of business to charities.

There are also benefits to the businesses who participate, including: increased employee wellbeing, better staff retention and loyalty, increased attraction to potential employees – and advancing their diversity, equity and inclusion.

Angela Halliday, director of social impact for Sodexo UK & Ireland, for example is urging employers to do 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.”

We are calling for more employers to develop a ‘workout culture’ to attract and retain the best talent and support communities and causes at the same time. Our call to action is backed by business leader Paul Drechsler CBE, president of the CBI from 2015 to 2018 who says: “It is not just good for society for businesses to support their employees who want to use their skills through volunteering, it is good for business.

The charity sector has never faced so many challenges and there has never been such a great opportunity for employees to volunteer and make a really big difference, learn and show what a great force for good their organisation and business can be. This is a huge opportunity for achievement, satisfaction and pride for a small investment of time. Now is the right time for action on this.”

One thing that holds pro bono – or ‘skills-based volunteering’ – back is a lack of recognition. 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.

So, even with the most rose-tinted of lenses, pro bono will not save the world. But it can still make a significant positive impact, by helping to upgrade the capacity of a free and open civil society to respond to the unfolding and overlapping risks across the economy, society and the environment.

The idea of giving your money to charity is widely practiced. In a service economy, the idea of giving your skills to charity is one that could attract new people and new talent into the great causes of our day.

And that is a cause for hope.

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Radix is the radical centre think tank. We welcome all contributions which promote system change, challenge established notions and re-imagine our societies. The views expressed here are those of the individual contributor and not necessarily shared by Radix.

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