Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Pro Bono Work Helps Firms Fight Economic Slump

The Wall Street Journal reported that aome small businesses are following the recession playbook of the unemployed.

Just as many laid-off workers are volunteering more to fill up their free time and enhance their résumés, small-business owners and their employees are doing more pro bono services or volunteer work as a marketing and customer-relations strategy.

The recession hit Studio G Architects Inc. of Boston particularly hard last fall, causing 2008 revenue to drop 30% from the prior year, says Gail Sullivan, the principal. Clients of the 16-year-old architectural firm killed or put on hold 10 projects last October. With work slowing down, the company began providing 15 to 20 hours a week in pro bono services to keep employees occupied and potentially attract future contracts. It worked.

This spring the firm prepared preliminary design projects, such as a playground for severely handicapped children, for various charities. The projects later received full funding and Studio G obtained several contracts, which ranged in value from $16,000 to $100,000. "Offering the pro bono services has given us a chance to maintain our design vigor [and] resulted in people hiring us," Ms. Sullivan says.

For a small business that has lost clients or seen revenue-generating projects dry up, performing free work is a way to keep employees engaged while cultivating new relationships. Donating services to charity groups, churches, schools and other nonprofits can "increase local visibility, deepen local business ties and create opportunity for new business," says Christine Banning, vice president of marketing and communications at SCORE, a Washington-based group that provides free counseling to small businesses.

While it is a strategy that can bear fruit in a tough economy, she warns that small-business owners should set parameters in terms of how much they give away. With charitable giving falling in 2008 for the first time since 1987, dropping about 2% from a year earlier, according to a Giving USA study released last month, more nonprofits could be seeking donations from local businesses.

That is why Robert Politzer, president and chief executive of GreenStreet of New York Inc., made sure his pro bono work can benefit his company in the future.

At a networking event four months ago, Mr. Politzer met the director of the Hudson River Clearwater Sloop Inc., a nonprofit that aims to preserve and protect the Hudson River. Now, the green-building and consulting firm is serving as the volunteer construction manager of the group's new headquarters in Beacon, N.Y. As a public-relations move, GreenStreet is uploading videos on YouTube as it documents the pro bono work. Read more here.

How can your nonprofit position itself to take advantage of these opportunities? Do you have examples of your own success with pro bono work? Share them here.

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