How to say ‘yes’ to pro bono work

Calling it ’knowledge philanthropy’ rather than ‘pro bono’ makes me feel like I am giving, rather than giving something away


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VANCOUVER, B.C. Dec 3, 2015/ Troy Media/ – Tuesday was Giving Tuesday, a day when we recognize philanthropy and encourage each other to give time and money to causes we care about. The not-for-profit sector dramatically improves our communities and the lives of our citizens in so many countless ways. Imagine how poor we would be if we simply counted on governments to establish our priorities and build our communities.

In a recent Globe and Mail column, Kathleen O’Grady wrote how saying ‘no’ to pro bono work saved her business, although some pro bono work is still part of her annual business planning. It was a good and important article and many of her points resonate with me. I am also an entrepreneur who gets a lot of requests to give away expertise ‘for a good cause’. Many times I have to say no. However, over the past two years I have intentionally incorporated knowledge philanthropy into my lifestyle portfolio (not my business portfolio). Here are some of the lessons I learned around how I say ‘YES!’ to pro bono.

  1. Volunteering is part of my life, not my work life. There was a time earlier in my career when someone convinced me pro bono work was a networking and business development opportunity. I’m not sure when and why that happened, because I have been actively volunteering my time since I was in my teens without expecting it to translate into income at a later date. I am intrinsically motivated to get involved in and give back to my community. I like helping to make the world a better place. For me, thinking of it as an aspect of ‘work’ confused the issue and robbed me of the joy of giving without expecting anything in return.
  2. I discovered knowledge philanthropy and left pro bono behind forever. About two years ago I also got involved in a not-for-profit organization that actively promotes knowledge philanthropy as a business model for the charitable sector. Knowledge philanthropy is explicitly focused on engaging volunteers in meaningful, knowledge-based work. It casts the volunteer as someone who works alongside staff, contributing expertise to help the organization fulfill its mission. When I facilitate a workshop, review human resources policies or provide coaching support to an Executive Director, I am engaging in knowledge philanthropy. I don’t know about you, but for me ’knowledge philanthropy’ is so much more inspiring than ‘pro bono’. Knowledge philanthropy makes me feel like I am giving. Pro bono makes me feel like I am giving something away.
  3. I am clear on when, where and why I donate my time. Spending time volunteering is important to me and I make space for it in my life and calendar in the same way I prioritize and carve out time for work, exercise, family. I established guidelines for myself around the type of activities I am interested in participating in. For me, this includes doing something that helps me develop new expertise, that hones a rusty skill set, experience a different context, or lets me work with people I really like and respect. Because I have these guidelines, it is very easy for me to entertain or decline a request without thinking too hard about it, and I never feel guilty when I say no. I am also open in sharing my decision-making criteria with the person who made the ask so they know why I have said yes or no.
  4. I stay within my limits. One of the surest ways for me to become disillusioned about volunteering is by giving too much of myself. I am careful to limit my time commitments and activities. I am also careful to manage the level of emotional investment I make. There is a lot to get disillusioned about in the charitable sector, just as in any other sector. I keep my energy positive and productive.
  5. I expect intrinsic rewards and satisfaction. I make decisions about paid work based on whether the financial return is worth the investment of my time and energy. Similarly, I assess my knowledge philanthropy based on whether it meets my expected satisfaction outcomes. My time is valuable – I could be out painting or doing yoga or making money instead – so my standards are high. If something does not generate the return I am expecting, I learn from that and move forward. Sometimes it means ending a relationship or stepping away from an organization once a commitment has been fulfilled. And I’m okay with that.

Troy Media columnist Rebecca Schalm, PhD, is founder and CEO of Strategic Talent Advisors Inc., a consultancy that provides organizations with advice and talent management solutions. Rebecca is included in Troy Media’s Unlimited Access subscription plan.

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