How to say ‘yes’ to pro bono work and feel good about it

Calling it ’knowledge philanthropy’ rather than ‘pro bono’ makes me feel like I am giving, rather than giving something away

Rebecca SchalmAs an entrepreneur I get a lot of requests to give away expertise ‘for a good cause’. Many times I have to say no. However, I have started to intentionally incorporated knowledge philanthropy into my lifestyle portfolio (not my business portfolio). Here are some of the lessons I learned around how I say ‘YES!’ to pro bono.

  1. Volunteering is part of my life, not my work life. There was a time earlier in my career when someone convinced me pro bono work was a networking and business development opportunity. I’m not sure when and why that happened, because I have been actively volunteering my time since I was in my teens without expecting it to translate into income at a later date. I am intrinsically motivated to get involved in and give back to my community. I like helping to make the world a better place. For me, thinking of it as an aspect of ‘work’ confused the issue and robbed me of the joy of giving without expecting anything in return.
  2. I discovered knowledge philanthropy and left pro bono behind forever. a few years back I also got involved in a not-for-profit organization that actively promotes knowledge philanthropy as a business model for the charitable sector. Knowledge philanthropy is explicitly focused on engaging volunteers in meaningful, knowledge-based work. It casts the volunteer as someone who works alongside staff, contributing expertise to help the organization fulfill its mission. When I facilitate a workshop, review human resources policies or provide coaching support to an Executive Director, I am engaging in knowledge philanthropy. I don’t know about you, but for me ’knowledge philanthropy’ is so much more inspiring than ‘pro bono’. Knowledge philanthropy makes me feel like I am giving. Pro bono makes me feel like I am giving something away.
  3. I am clear on when, where and why I donate my time. Spending time volunteering is important to me and I make space for it in my life and calendar in the same way I prioritize and carve out time for work, exercise, family. I established guidelines for myself around the type of activities I am interested in participating in. For me, this includes doing something that helps me develop new expertise, that hones a rusty skill set, experience a different context, or lets me work with people I really like and respect. Because I have these guidelines, it is very easy for me to entertain or decline a request without thinking too hard about it, and I never feel guilty when I say no. I am also open in sharing my decision-making criteria with the person who made the ask so they know why I have said yes or no.
  4. I stay within my limits. One of the surest ways for me to become disillusioned about volunteering is by giving too much of myself. I am careful to limit my time commitments and activities. I am also careful to manage the level of emotional investment I make. There is a lot to get disillusioned about in the charitable sector, just as in any other sector. I keep my energy positive and productive.
  5. I expect intrinsic rewards and satisfaction. I make decisions about paid work based on whether the financial return is worth the investment of my time and energy. Similarly, I assess my knowledge philanthropy based on whether it meets my expected satisfaction outcomes. My time is valuable – I could be out painting or doing yoga or making money instead – so my standards are high. If something does not generate the return I am expecting, I learn from that and move forward. Sometimes it means ending a relationship or stepping away from an organization once a commitment has been fulfilled. And I’m okay with that.

Troy Media columnist Rebecca Schalm, PhD, is founder and CEO of Strategic Talent Advisors Inc., a consultancy that provides organizations with advice and talent management solutions.

© Troy Media


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