How can you give it away for free?

Alexander ShermansongB&W

“How can you afford to give your services away for free?” People often ask me, “and why wouldn’t a company providing the service want to bill you?”

A lot of people assume if you’re not charging for your services, it’s not worth charging for them. In fact, it used to be the case that “pro bono” meant you couldn’t get anyone to pay you – either because they didn’t have money or because you weren’t very good. Sometimes, it was just a polite way to let go of the people you didn’t want around anymore.

But nowadays it’s different: only the best people get to do pro bono work. Companies actually assign their top stars to community service projects. For example, a few years back we were getting ready for a pro bono project to eliminate paperwork and put more cops on the street. The firm working with us pro bono asked to postpone the project six weeks, because their top project manager was finishing a case in Asia and they wanted their best guy on the job.

Why would they take him off a billable client for community service?

For one, doing good is the right thing to do. Tom Wilson from The Allstate Corporation put it well: “Those of us who are business leaders have a particular responsibility to invest in our communities. We do business in these communities. We live in these communities.”

In fact, three-out-of-four companies see community engagement and impact as a top benefit for pro bono work. “Helping out this way is what GE employees do,” said Mike LaChapelle.

“The primary reason is a genuine desire to contribute,” agreed Jim Rechtin from Bain & Company. Then he went on: ”The side benefit is a tremendously positive impact on our culture and on the recruitment and retention of our employees.”

According to one national survey, 90% of HR professionals believe skills-based volunteering can be an effective way to develop leadership skills. What is it about pro bono projects that make them such fertile training grounds?

“The common cause – coming together to help solve the tough issues that face the urban community, without money in the way – creates a level of trust and respect simply not found in a business-as-usual relationship,” explained IDEO’s Andrew Burroughs. “This heightened level of trust allows access to a vast network of influencers and doers across the city, opening doors that otherwise might be closed, and creating some wonderful learning opportunities along the way.”

You also see an unusual mix of people on pro bono projects, which brings out the best in the team according to Frank Muller from Crust Young: “It is both gratifying and exhilarating to be part of a team with the brightest minds of some of the world’s leading strategy consulting firms.”

Simply put, “corporate citizenship efforts inspire our people,” states Mike Scimo of Accenture.

As you talk to business leaders across the country, you’ll hear again and again that pro bono is good HR strategy. These projects help their employees find meaning in their work (skills-based volunteers are 38% more likely to have high morale). That keeps their top performers from looking for other places to work. And pro bono projects put them in new situations to test their skills and try different approaches. When finding and retaining the right people is so crucial for your company’s success, you can’t afford not “to give it away for free.”