Pro Bono Work and Skills-Based Volunteering Offer More than a Warm, Fuzzy Feeling

by Jeff Link
- Apr 26 2016 - 5 min read
skills-based volunteering warm fuzzies
Brandon Au

When thinking of pro bono work in the context of architecture, design, and engineering, seal and sea-lion rescue may not come to mind as readily as, say, a Habitat for Humanity home in Chicago.

But that perception may be changing, thanks, in part, to skills-based volunteering opportunities through organizations such as the Taproot Foundation, Public Architecture, and Journeyman International.

The Taproot Foundation. Taproot Foundation advises companies on how to design high-quality opportunities for pro bono engagement. In June 2015, the Autodesk Foundation helped a team of pro bono volunteers coordinate a partnership with The Marine Mammal Center, leveraging the employees’ engineering and additive manufacturing skills. The objective? To create a 3D-printed tranquilizer dart with a built-in transmitter device that would ensure seals and sea lions—fleeing perceived danger—are tagged and captured safely.

Like many employee-engagement programs supported by the Taproot Foundation, the project is a win-win: bringing together a worthy organization and private-sector professionals seeking philanthropic outlets, with the added incentive of finding challenging and innovative ways to further their careers.

“Design and design pro bono can have a tremendous impact in the nonprofit world. We see wonderful examples of the use of design for good. We’ve gone far beyond design and technology being used to fix a website or database,” says Joel Bashevkin, executive director of Taproot’s San Francisco Bay Area region. “Our clients are tapping pro bono expertise to use design and technology to deliver better services at a greater scale.”

skills-based volunteering Taproot Foundation
A Taproot Foundation program hosted at Autodesk in San Francisco. Courtesy Taproot.

So how can an interested designer find the right project, one that is truly fulfilling rather than just a professional feather in the cap? “A few suggestions,” Bashevkin says. “The most important is to bring your curiosity as you explore possible groups or projects to work on. We find that learning goes both ways; it is an enriching experience. Pick projects that have a clear description of what will be achieved and how it will improve the organization or community. Then revisit your own personal motivations to see if working with this organization will support your goals.”

A good place to start, he says, is Taproot+, an online platform that connects professionals and nonprofits for four- to six-week projects. For instance, the Village Improvement Project, known for its work supplying solar lights in rural Liberia, recently advertised for a pro bono designer or engineer to help manufacture a prototype for a fuel-efficient, wood-burning stove. Or the Business Council for Peace, which, as part of a new project in Guatemala, sought a product designer to create a lean-technology platform to capture and package orientation and training content for its business volunteers. In less than two years, Taproot+ has delivered more than $3.5 million in service and more than 500 projects.

Public Architecture’s 1+. Another outlet for designers interested in pro bono opportunities is 1+, Public Architecture’s flagship program, which challenges the design community worldwide to dedicate one percent or more of their working hours to pro bono service. The program’s nationwide platform connects designers and design firms with nonprofits that have unmet design needs. In a little more than 10 years of existence, 1+ has signed on 18,000 designers and supported 1,000 nonprofits.

“There’s a really neat opportunity for traditional architecture firms to match with firms that bring a more technical approach to the projects,” says program director Amy Ress.

skills-based volunteering open-air pavilion designed by Lake|Flato, +1 
With aspirations to be the first Living Building project in Texas, this 5,400-square-foot open-air pavilion designed by Lake|Flato is an education and meeting center that serves as a demonstration site for the Dixon Water Foundation. Courtesy 1+/Casey Dunn.

She points to a recent pro bono project in which Mack Scogin Merrill Elam (MSME) Architects designed a house for Habitat for Humanity in Pascagoula, Mississippi, an area severely affected by Hurricane Katrina. MSME Architects completed drawings for the casework and collaborated with the manufacturer, Formica, who donated, constructed, and installed all of the custom cabinets, countertops, and kitchen-shelving units.

Beyond the benefits to volunteers, pro bono work can also pay dividends for firms, allowing companies a gateway into unexplored markets. “Firms with expertise in high-end residential can branch out into daycare facilities or emergency shelters at a local park,” Ress says. “Outside of the constraints of traditional practice, there can be both the opportunity for greater creative freedom and new project types.”

And many volunteer projects do not require an extensive time commitment. “Pro bono projects can be small, like revising a floor plan. One percent annually is 20 hours—based on a 40-hour work week. You can make a big impact by donating just 20 hours of service,” Ress says.

Journeyman International. For Daniel Wiens, president and founder of Journeyman International (JI)—a California-based nonprofit that connects university students and volunteer architects, engineers, and project managers with global humanitarian projects—the appeal of pro bono work is especially powerful among architects. While volunteers may enjoy international travel opportunities, and architecture and design firms may use pro bono work as a recruitment and public-relations tool, the primary reason people volunteer, he says, is a desire to do good in the world.

The application process is pretty clear-cut. “If a professional wants to sponsor or mentor a student design team, they click on the Sponsor Design button on my homepage and fill out the application,” Wiens says. “I then review and set them up with a design team. If they want to design a project themselves, they click the Volunteer Design button on my homepage and fill out the application.”

skills-based volunteering Journeyman
California Polytechnic State University College of Architecture and Environmental Design students and Journeyman International designers Oretola Thomas, Vicky Arias, and Courtney Wedel exploring a potential project site in Rubagabaga, Rwanda.

LSW Architects in Vancouver, Washington plans to undertake both options this year, working as an office on a project in South Africa and assigning a staff team to mentor a student design team.

Applications from socially minded firms must meet the following criteria: “The project needs to be spearheaded by a legit humanitarian organization with a proven track record,” he says. “Also, they must be able to communicate frequently with our design teams and have English-speaking reps. And we prefer for the organization to have land for the project and, at least, partial funding. Then, finally, the project must have local, in-country design and construction personnel who can support the process prior to and during construction.”

Organizations such as Taproot, Public Architecture, and Journeyman International serve as a kind of informed, socially enlightened connective tissue, matching individuals or firms with nonprofit affiliates and providing the training and strategic advisory services to make the partnerships successful.

The benefits to nonprofits on the receiving end seem rather obvious: free labor and expertise from personally invested, highly trained individuals with specialized knowledge. And professionals benefit from pro bono work in ways, according to Bashevkin, that extend beyond an ephemeral sense of making a positive impact in the world: “Pro bono opportunities allow you to adapt, develop market insight, and practice skills that can help you create your career path.”

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