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.”

Leading, learning and connecting through pro bono

Guest writer Melissa Neugebauer, Manager, A.T. Kearney, Inc., shares some of her experiences bringing business strategy consulting skills to a mayoral transition effort.



It’s refreshing to step out of the corporate world for a bit and do a pro bono project. There is a lot that the public and private sectors can learn from each other.

When the new mayor of NYC was coming into office, I had the chance to work with the transition team as a pro bono consultant. Our team (drawn from a few different firms) was part of shaping the future of one America’s greatest cities, with a large and diverse population.

Honestly, I was unsure of how the partners from other firms would come together, but Civic Consulting USA did an excellent job of providing structure and leading the team to accomplish a lot in a short time period.

In this case, each member of the team worked with a subcommittee, and I was in charge of technology. This subcommittee was filled with leaders of some of the city’s largest technology companies, tech entrepreneurs and investors, and academics.

I was able to strengthen my executive communication and leadership skills by planning and conducting workshops with this influential group. I also built a great network of professionals that I still keep in touch with since the project has completed.

At the beginning of any major transition there are lots of big ideas and goals. One of the areas that Civic Consulting USA along with their pro bono partners excelled in was bringing a pragmatic and thorough approach, prioritizing and creating action plans to bring these big ideas to life.

We left the mayor’s new team with a solid start to running the largest and most complicated city in America – and if you can do that here you can do it anywhere!

“An exciting opportunity to help launch a new, multi-agency New York State efficiency effort”

M Lachapelle
Mike LaChapelle, Access GE Team Leader, GE Capital

Delays for customer service requests dropped 80% following a two-day Kaizen event I facilitated with a major state agency.  I was impressed by the support and involvement from very senior leaders in the administration who personally offered their time and commitment to make the project happen, right down to the front-line staff who exhibited a real can-do attitude.

For me, it was an exciting opportunity to help launch a new, multi-agency New York State efficiency effort.  In part, helping out this way is what GE employees do:  each year we volunteer 1.3 million hours in our communities.  Moreover, this type of service has been central to my career.  In my 28 years with GE, I’ve helped local school systems, chambers of commerce, community colleges, and other non-profit organizations to improve their operations.

When you provide pro bono services, you want the team you’re working with to be as committed as you are. The New York State team leaders made my job easy by gathering all the data needed in advance and completing process maps of the key functions.  During the Kaizen event, the participants were open to new ideas and quickly implemented the changes required to reduce customer lead times.  The support provided by the IT team was invaluable in quickly implementing systems changes, as well as moving and installing computer hardware.

After the Kaizen event, I shared the great experience that I had with some of the GE Lean Leaders in the Capital District.  I have enlisted the help of three of my GE colleagues, Michael Noble-Jack and Jeff Skinkle of GE Power & Water, and Steve Kearney of GE Healthcare, to help facilitate future Kaizen events and support the expansion of the effort in 2014.  They are all as excited as I am to share our expertise to help New York State and our local communities.

When is it worth more for free?

[handwritten] When is it worth more for free?

“The best thing is, they’re free!”

I blanched when my client said that at a conference. Here I was, on the same panel, explaining how coordinated pro bono teams enable government leaders to tap into the greatest talent available anywhere. How companies see so much more impact from this type of volunteering.

And Jack, a government leader, says it’s all about the price tag.

But then he went on to explain why being free is important: when you know something is wrong, but you don’t know what exactly the problem is, you don’t know what to buy to fix it. And as a public official, it’s very hard to justify buying anything when you don’t know what you need.

[handwritten] When is it worth more for free?

That’s where pro bono work comes in. Because it’s free of charge, pro bono services – when structured appropriately – allow government executives to explore what the issue is before they decide on an a plan of action. Based on this public-private work, the government might choose to move forward by assigning staff to the issue, by issuing an RFP or other procurement, by securing further pro bono resources, or any combination of the three.

Pro bono expertise defining the problem thus enables the most efficient use of public resources for implementing the solution.

Other times, when the problem might be clear, how to secure the resources for solving it might not be as obvious. For example, when one client wanted their procurement to be more inclusive of organized labor, they looked to a model in which private vendors compete with local unions to provide custodial services, maintenance, or other functions. But their procurement office had no experience with this approach, so they requested nonpartisan, pro bono services to “manage” the first competition.

In other cases, the problem is clear and even the necessary resources are clear, but it’s politically infeasible to budget and procure such a service. For example, when our client was trying to close a 16% budget gap (a legacy of the previous administration) and the last thing they needed was to hire a “high-priced consultant.” They needed extra analytic firepower, they needed it fast, and it wasn’t politically viable to pay for it. As it turns out, the budget provided a great volunteer opportunity where those who volunteered saw the impact of their efforts right away.

But free isn’t always better. There are also some clear cases of when pro bono isn’t appropriate.

If an agency already has an established budget, for example, for IT systems, there’s little reason for a company to provide that free of charge. After all, a long-term pro bono partnership works only if it’s good for each of the partners.

On the flip side, pro bono service on part A shouldn’t lead to a paid contract on part B. Even if it’s not undue influence, the potential appearance of a conflict could be problematic, for all involved.

More generally, pro bono service is not a quid pro quo. The most successful projects are motivated by civic impact and employee engagement. If there’s even a perception of conflict of interest, it’s not the right pro bono project.

Prior to Jack’s comments on that conference panel, I’d always thought the difficult thing to explain with pro bono work is why companies give their services away free of charge. Jack made me look through the eyes of a government official and I realized that there’s just as much to figure out on the client side of a pro bono project.

Next time, let’s look through the eyes of a pro bono partner: When is it better to work for free?

“Results-oriented and apolitical — both gratifying and exhilarating”

Frank Muller, Senior Consultant, Crust Young New York Inc.

Guest writer Frank Muller, Senior Consultant from Crust Young New York Inc., reflects on the skills he brings from banking and the benefits of pro bono service.

Frank Muller, Senior Consultant, Crust Young New York Inc.
Frank Muller, Senior Consultant, Crust Young New York Inc.

The result-oriented and apolitical way Civic Consulting USA approaches public sector challenges has exceeded my expectations. Their stakeholder management is cautious and effective. They determine with a sharp eye areas where an outside-view would add to the public cause. Then they offer concrete and topical pro bono services, with modesty and with great respect for the people in charge.

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.

Civic’s approach is to let each person and firm work on problems in their core strength, which maximizes leverage and enables Civic USA itself to remain agile and cost-efficient.

In my case my background from change management in the financial sector appeared to be very helpful in achieving public goals for New York City. I would encourage other companies to take the opportunity to work with Civic Consulting too: you can make a difference.

When they approached Crust Young New York to assist with an historic opportunity in New York City, I did not have to think long. Civic’s reputation from their work in Chicago was promising already.

I had come to NYC to gain international experience in the public sector, having an MBA background and working as a senior manager for a European bank. My work with Civic USA has been among my most rewarding activities in America. I gained a deep understanding of the way government organizations are run in the US.  I expect to be able to apply that in my career upon my return to Europe.

Imagine no more waiting in line

Imagine government without waiting lines.  Government where you were never put on hold when you called.  Government where you got a permit or license in a few days instead of a few months.   Well, it’s beginning to happen – and one of the tools governments increasingly use is a process called “Lean.“

Michael HickeyLean was developed on automotive assembly lines as a strategy for building cars faster with fewer defects, but Lean has applications for any process.  Going step-by-step through systems, programs and regulations, Lean seeks to improve or eliminate parts that are prone to waits, rejections and resubmissions, bottlenecks, or doing more than what the customer really wants.

Here’s an example from the private sector, where Lean grew up:

Western Union had a problem.  In order to add a new sales agent to their network, applications went through a labyrinthine 19-day process.  Applications passed through the hands of dozen staff who sorted, recorded, reviewed and batched the paperwork before sending it to the next person.  Surely it could be sped up a bit?

So Western Union decided to bring the team together – everyone from bosses to the sorting clerk – and take a hard look at all the steps.  Was there a better way to conduct the handful of required background checks and schedule training with the new sales agent?

Using Lean, the team spent two days reviewing the entire process, asking, “Does every step help us deliver exactly what our new sales agents need, while complying with federal agencies and our own business requirements?”  If not, they took that step out.

They found that by calling the new sales agent first (instead of at the end of the process), they could verify most of the information over the phone.  Better still, one person could do the entire process, eliminating all that waiting as the application passed from hand to hand.  In the end, the new process went from 19 days to… 22 minutes

As you can imagine, Lean is common in a variety of industries including manufacturing, finance, and health care.  Wouldn’t it be great if we could use Lean to help government do its job more effectively as well?

It turns out that a number of cities and states are doing just this:

These may seem like small wins, but the effects are cumulative.  For instance, Fort Wayne has been rigorous in implementing Lean, applying it to over 100 projects and saving they city some $30 million, or nearly 16% of their total expense budget!

What’s incredible about many of these public sector efforts is that private corporations in manufacturing, finance and health care are donating the expertise to teach Lean to state workers, coaching them to use the same process the private sector folks use routinely.

If you’re reading this and you have expertise that you’d like to offer, then contact us and we’ll work with your firm to make a difference right in your home town.

There’s a new way to change the world

Why isn’t trying hard good enough?  These days, we all seem to expect more from our lives.  Whether you’re just leaving college or about to retire, we want to make a difference.

Alexander ShermansongIt’s no longer enough to volunteer on a board or at a youth center.  Of course, we still want to do that, but now we want something new too.  We’re looking for innovation and impact.  We’re looking to turn our talents into results we can see.  The problem is, most of us just don’t know how.

And unfortunately with volunteering, the old adage “it’s the thought that counts” doesn’t hold true.  Far too many volunteering efforts don’t really make a difference.  Sometimes you offer your skills to a good cause, but you end up writing a report that goes nowhere.  Or you find the right role, but it turns out to be a three-year project and you have only three months.  What do you do?

Welcome to the new world of pro bono partnerships.  Imagine thousands of people, from college grads to retirees, from consulting wonks to open-collared designers, working together and getting results like cutting youth violence in half, connecting hundreds of thousands of patients to primary care, increasing community college graduation rates 80%.  That’s energizing.  That’s impact.

It turns out this kind of pro bono partnership has been quietly succeeding in Chicago for 30 years.  That’s why we want to take the model national.

How you do it is all in the name:  Civic Consulting.

  • It’s civic – we make a difference on things that matter, like jobs, education, and safety
  • It’s consulting – we help those with the ability and responsibility (our clients) make better decisions.

The model’s success hinges on finding a great client and trying to help him or her do an even better job.  Beyond writing reports or grassroots advocacy, taking a client-oriented approach deploys your skills in a framework already geared to action.  City leaders run massive operations, serving residents and businesses everyday.  By volunteering with such a leader — rather than, say, writing a letter to the editor — your skills have an immediate outlet for implementation.  And with city leaders as clients, you’re able to affect entire systems.

You need to think big to inspire.  Tackling an issue like community college graduation inspires thousands of people to volunteer their skills, not just a few hours at a time – but full time and for months.  That’s what happens when you focus on impacts, not just outputs or projects.  Incidentally, companies sponsor such volunteers in part because they share that inspiration.

Implementing such inspiring ideas requires coordinating efforts over time.  These ideas are bigger than any one volunteer project, no matter how big.  How do you find the right size of the right project for the right partner – and then do it again and again?  That’s the Civic Consulting secret: aggregating and focusing your talents so that, over time, with many others, you make a difference.