It’s Not You, It’s Me – Nonprofit Capacity and the Pro Bono Bottleneck
“Water, water, everywhere,
and all the boards did shrink;
water, water, everywhere,
nor any drop to drink.”
- Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
Last week, I had the privilege of attending a conference on pro bono and this quote kept coming to mind, albeit under much different circumstances than those of the infamous tale. Our conference was not cursed by a fallen albatross and our sessions were not taking place at sea (as amazing as that would have been). No, we were simply debating pro bono and how to better connect volunteers to causes. A curious thing occurred however, as the conversation developed throughout the day. What had originally been a discussion of how to rally employees to volunteer their time eventually fell into redundancy. As it turned out, the far more concerning issue for many organizations was not convincing their employees to volunteer, but convincing nonprofits to work with them. The day’s most common refrain seemed to become, “Need, need, everywhere, nor any org to serve.”
It was an interesting conundrum and one that our own HR Pro Bono Corps has faced as well. There are so many volunteers today that wish to join the pro bono movement, but ultimately face a bottleneck when it comes to being able to serve a nonprofit. Many wonder at why this might be - why is there not an endless queue of nonprofits eager to take advantage of the pro bono services that studies have shown they so crucially need?
Though there are many factors at play here, one common issue that I’ve encountered more often than not is the simple problem of capacity. As nice and as wonderful as these pro bono services are, there is the painful reality that many nonprofit organizations simply do not have the capacity and bandwidth to take on such a project. With both resources and staff stretched thin, the idea of not only taking on a pro bono consultant, but managing that relationship, working with them to develop new process and resources, and ultimately rolling such changes out across the organization is daunting (to say the very least).
Is there something that both volunteers and nonprofits can do about this? I believe it begins with a recognition that positive change can take place across the full spectrum of project scale. Our HR Pro Bono Corps is not limited to just large projects. We also match nonprofits to HR professionals for brief coaching sessions, recognizing that not only can such small conversations be exceptionally valuable, but also can lead to more significant projects down the line. From the nonprofit perspective, building a foundational awareness of their needs by connecting for smaller conversations or specific webinars can be invaluable stepping stones to future change, and doesn’t require the full-scale investment typical of larger pro bono projects.
Likewise, for volunteers, looking for more diverse formats in which to volunteer can help to mitigate long waits in the pro bono queue. Our HR Pro Bono Corps has expanded from large projects and short consulting sessions, to now offering volunteers the opportunity to host webinars, breakout-discussions, and week-long forums on essential facets of talent management. Understanding the burden (as counterintuitive as it may seem) that pro bono can put on nonprofits and adjusting opportunities accordingly has helped us to alleviate the aforementioned volunteer doldrums.
The poem that inspired this diatribe may conclude on a low note, but I don’t believe that our own story has to share a similar ending. Pro bono is a valuable and important tool that can provide critical support for an organization’s impact and sustainability. I encourage both nonprofits and volunteers to not turn a blind eye to this potential, and – perhaps most importantly – to recognize that transformative pro bono collaboration can come in all shapes and sizes.
Image courtesy of Ambro / FreeDigitalPhotos.net