Increase the true impact of pro bono.


Three ways to shift from aid to accompaniment

Mighty Ally | Blog | Increase the True Impact of Pro Bono | girls photo

Over the past few decades, the approach to domestic and foreign aid has started to shift. There’s a push to design programs that address root inequalities, empower recipient communities, and break the donor-recipient aid cycle. If you’re at all familiar with the non-profit or social innovation space, this is nothing new. And yet, this matured approach has not been extended to a significant source of social aid and assistance: the pro bono work donated and executed by creative, marketing, and consulting agencies. 

Put simply, the traditional pro bono work model is archaic, and the impact limited. And even worse: there’s a real possibility the pro bono work being done has a detrimental effect on the recipient. 

The good news is: the solution to this issue has already been at least partially addressed by those in the social sector. Services professionals can and should borrow principles from the NGOs and social enterprises to transform the impact of their pro bono work. 

Accompaniment Defined

One such principle is that of accompaniment. This term was originally coined by Peruvian priest Gustavo Gutierrez as an element of Liberation Theology, but has since been secularized and applied to public health by Dr. Paul Farmer, founder of Partners in Health. Farmer’s ideology and resulting work is deeply rooted in accompaniment, and his resulting outcome speaks for itself. 

Accompaniment is simple in its definition and profoundly difficult in its activation. To quote Farmer’s 2011 commencement address to the graduates of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, “to accompany someone is to go somewhere with him or her, to break bread together, to be present on a journey…”. It’s a principle that rejects expertise and technical solutions as the easy way to solve problems, and requires intimacy, openness, and humility.

True accompaniment can transform the donation of professional services into a movement that generates impact and results alongside social changemaker clients. Of course, there are challenges inherent to adopting this radical mindset within the context of a for-profit business, but the following principles can serve as guideposts for its implementation. 

Step 1: Use your UX + Design Thinking Toolbox

First, in the spirit of “breaking bread,” it’s essential that a pro bono relationship be rooted in intimate understanding of the recipient’s mission, cause, environment, and motivations. Luckily for those in the digital agency space, experience with “user-centric design” can be a great starting point to guide the mechanisms by which we draw close to our partners and join them at their table. 

Observation + Listening – Activate your very best Account Management skills to truly absorb your pro bono client’s environment, strategic objectives, past performance, and team dynamics. Don’t hesitate to request access to background documentation, strategic plans, or submitted grants. Block out days to be “on the ground” with your client, either in the back office or shadowing them out working in their community. If your client has a logic model or theory of change, study it, hard. Conduct internal stakeholder interviews, and summarize findings and insights to your team during the onboarding process. 

Competitive Research + Landscape Analysis – You wouldn’t start an engagement with a for-profit client without diving deep into their competitive set. You should do the same with your pro bono client, even if “competition” is defined differently. 

Validate + Iterate – Take your pro bono work out into the field, ask for feedback from stakeholders, then iterate and improve. Of course, we know that pro bono work can’t operate under an unlimited budget, but you might be surprised how valuable even three 15-minute conversations with internal stakeholders and audience targets could be to your final project. 

Step 2: Grow Your Client’s Skill sets

Secondly, processes, systems, and organizational abilities must be considered, built, and developed. Just as Paul Farmer and his medical staff discovered that addressing crises of public health required solving deeper-rooted issues of malnutrition and food supply, we have to be open to diving deeper and solving more systemic issues on behalf of our pro bono clients. 

Breaking the donor-recipient cycle is a theme echoed throughout the social impact space. It demands for us to not just deliver products, but to engage with our clients and grow their expertise, driving them towards longer-term sustainability. 

So, how to do this? 

This could mean pivoting from the design of an annual report to a holistic brand strategy exercise, or shelving a portfolio-worthy web design for the sake of a solution that can actually be managed and maintained by staff. 

Or, you might schedule a day for your pro bono client’s internal marketing staff to shadow your creative, copywriting, or email marketing team. This will help your client’s team learn practical skills that will allow them to execute campaigns even when your relationship concludes. 

Step 3: Once You Start, Commit

Lastly, the proof of true accompaniment is in the implementation. As Farmer says, “It is not the same as a paid consultancy or a one-off project to help certain institutions or individuals for a little while. As noted, the beginning of accompaniment is often clearer than the end.” This is likely the most difficult principle to enact within the structure of a for-profit business bound by marketplace limits to time, capital, and resources. And it’s where we remind ourselves that accompaniment requires we find means of breaking from the “iron cage” of systems devoted to efficiency and control.  

It can be appealing to relegate pro bono work to single-day “hackathons” or carve out finite hours to donate as pro bono hours, but understand that by doing so you run the risk of contributing to system issues, versus solving problems and truly fulfilling your goal of helping.

There is a desperate need across the world for the type of expertise so many of us in the professional services field have honed throughout our careers. But this expertise must be delivered with greater consideration and commitment. We’d be wise to draw our cues from those in healthcare and other sectors who have had to adjust their approach to realize greater impact and systemic change. It’s no exaggeration to say that when we’re able to truly accompany our clients and partners in every sense of the term, the pro bono work delivered by agencies can save lives and combat the vast inequality found across the world.