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Why Do Pro Bono Work in a Down Economy?

This is the second in a four-part series by Chris Sciarrone, an associate in the Atlanta office of Perkins+Will, on pro bono work and  social responsibility in the architecture industry. 

Design, of course, is also a business, and one that often suffers disproportionately when the economy lags because of its ties to real estate and construction. An obvious question then, is, Why give away free work even when paid work has become difficult to find?’

The last 10 years have witnessed a recognizable movement in the architecture profession towards socially relevant, public-interest design, yet the motivations for an individual or a firm to pursue this kind of work are usually internal. Some frequently acknowledged reasons include:

Filling A Need

Not-for-profit organizations can articulate their needs very well, and are adept at raising funds to support a capital project. But typically, they do not have in-house design and construction expertise. It makes perfect sense that architects and other design professionals would be the ones to help bridge the gap between wish list and groundbreaking.

For their 10th annual visual arts festival, Atlanta Celebrates Photography (ACP) commissioned artist team McCallum and Tarry to construct one of ACP’s largest public art installations. Perkins+Will provided architectural and construction services to create a dramatic viewing experience for the artists’ temporary sound and video display housed in and around the 100-foot-tall abandoned concrete water tower within blocks of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center.

Personal Satisfaction

Pro bono projects create opportunities for designers to make a difference in people’s lives as well as experience the impact that difference makes. Pro bono projects can end up being some of the most rewarding work that we are involved in, connecting us with the noblest values of our profession.

Civic Engagement

Local pro bono projects can strengthen ties and build relationships in our community. They can be done with a public participation process that considers the interests of numerous stakeholders. Many pro bono projects provide a venue for collaboration with artists, engineers, government agencies, material suppliers, and other design firms.

Creativity and Innovation

Pro bono projects provide opportunities to exercise the firm’s best creative abilities and to tackle challenges introduced by atypical project types. They offer the chance to seek and define design problems proactively.

The South Fork Conservancy was formed to restore and protect the riparian systems of the South Fork Watershed of Atlanta’s Peachtree Creek. The Conservancy aims to preserve and enhance the natural beauty of the creeks and streams and promote harmonious, low-impact recreational use through the development trails. Perkins+Will was enlisted to produce a vision document for the conservancy.

Recruitment + Retention

Pro bono projects give the firm a chance to engage and inspire every employee, design and non-design alike. Pro bono projects may also lend themselves to mentoring relationships between junior and senior staff as well as afford more direct client interaction for junior staff. People want to work for firms that demonstrate a commitment to socially relevant work.


Pro bono projects can demonstrate the value of good design to a wider audience. Not-for-profit organizations and their clients deserve and need thoughtful, sustainable, high-quality environments.

Perkins+Will has had the privilege to partner with a broad range of clients who are addressing important issues like healthcare, education, counseling, job training, affordable housing, and arts and culture on severely restricted budgets. As the economy has staggered through the last few years, the need has intensified and the available resources have dwindled. We have been able to support their missions by advising them on decisions related to design, land-use, facilities and construction. In short, we do this because we believe that a practice of architecture that is socially responsible and civically engaged creates benefits for both the designer and the client.


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