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?