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Guidelines for a Positive Pro Bono Experience

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In part three of the series on social responsibility and pro bono work, Chris Sciarrone, an associate in the Atlanta office of Perkins+Will, offers guidelines for a positive pro bono experience that could be used for any industry. 

Providing pro bono design services to community organizations has been part of the culture of Perkins +Will informally for several generations, yet Hurricane Katrina in 2005 spurred the firm’s leadership to do this in a more proactive and coordinated manner.

The Diabetes Health and Wellness Institute at the Juanita J. Craft Recreation Center is the result of collaboration between the City of Dallas Park and Recreation Department and the Baylor Healthcare Southern Sector Healthcare Initiative. It represents a first-of-its-kind facility designed to treat and prevent diabetes holistically through diagnosis, treatment, education and physical activity.
The Perkins+Will design team worked closely with the owner and user groups to design a facility that reflects the goals of DHWI. The level of design care and quality of materials chosen for the improved facility renews the community’s sense of pride in a historically underdeveloped neighborhood, and endeavors to honor the center’s namesake. Photo by Chuck Smith

We implemented a program we called the Social Responsibility Initiative (SRI), dedicated to “engaging social needs in the built environment where design can make a difference.”

We began by pledging one percent of our annual revenue to support public interest design work. Then we built an operational framework that would allow us to fulfill our intentions of treating pro bono projects exactly the same as paid projects. It was important that we avoid the mentality of “doing favors.”

Over the last seven years we have established guidelines that we hope are broadly applicable to other professions seeking to launch similar endeavors.

1. Focus locally

SRI projects are pursued by local offices, with special focus on the communities we live in. Often times it is a passionate designer who makes the first contact with a prospective client. An experienced group of staff reviews potential projects and selects those that we can best support.

2. Determine criteria for selecting projects

In addition to our local focus, we look for projects and organizations that are socially beneficial, serve the underserved and can incorporate sustainability.

3. Define scope of your work precisely

We have found that services during the early ‘project discovery’ phase are even more critical on pro bono projects, perhaps because of the greater disparity between needs and resources. Therefore, project architects are encouraged to define the scope of work being done and the scope of services being offered very precisely. Be explicit about what is included and what is not, since an open-ended arrangement tends to work to everyone’s detriment. Ask lots of questions to identify the client’s needs. Clarify options up front for how to proceed if the scope changes.

4. Execute an agreement

Make sure the agreement includes fair terms and ensure all parties understand them. Outline each party’s responsibilities, and be clear about schedule expectations.

5. Assign the appropriate staff

Consider how much and what kind of experience would be best suited for the tasks at hand.

6. Establish a realistic project budget

Whether your budget tracks effort in time or in cost equivalents, be sure to stick to it. Outline a work plan and track progress. Acknowledge the approximate value of in-kind services by issuing statements monthly.

7. Subject the work being done to the customary internal reviews for quality that all other projects undergo

This can take many forms; in the design world this means presenting the concepts to objective peers for constructive criticism.

8. Participate in and advise the client regarding selection processes for other project-related services such as construction or furniture procurement.

One of the valuable things we can bring to a client is the ability to make those connections through our knowledge of the market.

While much of this appears to be common business sense, it is surprising how readily good-hearted people sometimes waive these practices simply because no money is changing hands.

A non-profit client of ours once remarked about how many donations of used furniture they received that were in poor condition and unusable. She appreciated the donors’ generosity but at the same time had to establish some criteria about what kinds of donations were acceptable.

It remains part of our role as design professionals to approach our clients as partners — not charities.

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