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Pro Pro Bono

In a post-recession world it seems philanthropic design is here to stay, and business is booming.

By Erika Templeton

In a post-recession world it seems philanthropic design is here to stay, and business is booming.

Heat map of pro bono activity in the United States, created by The 1% program

Thanks to the power of design, architects and designers are uniquely poised to give back to their communities through pro bono project work. We spoke with leaders from philanthropic design organizations around the country to find out exactly what types of programs are available and what kinds of impacts they’re having on their communities.

The good news, for starters, is that more and more firms and individuals are jumping on board to lend a helping hand—or eye—following the recession.

“We could consider this to be part of a cycle, and it’s tied to the economic, political, cultural and social times that we’re in,” explains Amy Ress, program manager of Public Architecture, whose program, The 1%, asks architecture and design firms to pledge 1 percent of their billable hours to pro bono work. “There was a strong interest like this during periods in the 1970s and 1980s when architects and designers were more out of work. We’re in that wave again at the moment.”

According to Public Architecture’s latest survey, released in January 2013, The 1% program is now 1,205 firms strong, collectively contributing an estimated $42 million in services annually to help nonprofits undertake new design and development projects.

“We probably get on average between 15 and 20 firms a month that join, and we know that there are about 15,000 designers that are in those firms that are a part of the commitment and have been allocated time to work on their pro bono projects,” says Ress.

The 1% operates on a national level, working with groups like the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID) and the American Institute of Architects (AIA) to encourage firms to make pro bono pledges an industry standard. Firms can pledge services including facility needs assessments, capital campaign materials, building and space identification, interior design and brand integration, accessibility and code compliance, healthy and sustainable environments, and facilities renovation.

The 1% also offers resources and information to designers, as well as a matchmaking service for firms who need help finding nonprofits to partner with.

hitting close to home
While The 1% doesn’t offer on-the-ground support to designers’ pro bono projects, there is a world of opportunity on a local level, where smaller organizations are seeing similar growth.

“The pro bono field in general is blowing up right now,” says Rachel Crawford, acting director of desigNYC. Edwin Schlossberg and Michelle Mullineaux co-founded the nonprofit in 2009 when they, too, noticed that designers needed an outlet for their skills during the recession.

Now that billings are up and the industry is on the road to recovery, this do-good ethos might be here to stay. Philanthropic leaders hope our modern network of design organizations will ensure that volunteerism itself can avoid the highs and lows of future economic shifts.

“It’s really interesting to see that shift that’s happened. More and more designers who are coming out of school—and just citizens of the world in general—are looking for ways to give back a little more,“ Crawford says.

Many organizations are now partnering directly with schools, where the students offer a ripe pool of human resources, and where nonprofit projects offer a valuable chance to explore real-world problems beyond the classroom. PageBreak

DesigNYC contributes to the School of Visual Arts’ (SVA) summer program, Impact: Design for Social Change. Meanwhile, in Boston, the Community Design Resource Center (CDRC) recently partnered with a classroom of students at Boston Architectural College (BAC) to help allocate a $15,000 donation for design improvements at a local branch of the public library.

“Fifteen-thousand dollars may seem like a lot, but it doesn’t go very far at all in terms of design budgets,” explains Gretchen Schneider, executive director, CDRC of Boston. “By incorporating this challenge into an interiors class at the BAC, those students came up with a variety of different schemes for how that money might be spent.”

The Chicago-based group Designs for Dignity offers volunteer opportunities for everyone from designers to manufacturers to installation specialists.

Rather than connecting individual firms with nonprofits, they build multi-firm, multi-disciplinary teams, often pairing young talent with volunteer representatives from major design firms like Gensler, VOA and Perkins+Will.

“Where we can, we like to incorporate student designers and provide that mentoring moment for them,” explains Jennifer Sobecki, executive director of Designs for Dignity. “We’re very attuned to growing that relationship because students become future designers at firms and then become future event attendees or project volunteers.”

the pro bonus
All of this is great news for nonprofits, of course. But beyond improving community life, pro bono work also has clear benefits for a firm’s bottom line.

Ready to Go Pro Bono?

Here’s some advice for getting your firm on board a pro bono track, from the organizational leaders themselves.

(click to view PDF)
“The nonprofit world is a market that is underexplored by the A+D community. It’s a $1.8 trillion economy,” says Ress.

By jumping in on pro bono work, she explains, design teams are able to introduce themselves to new design sectors and geographic markets—and meet with powerful board members who could lead to other projects down the line. Pro bono work also tends to be more creative and collaborative, and can serve as a conduit for new forms of research and development.

For larger firms that tend to take on more distant or global work, local pro bono projects offer a chance to reconnect with the surrounding community and get exposure for doing good. And with demand for social good becoming a factor for new designers entering the field, a pro bono program can be a key differentiator for firms looking to retain or recruit new talent.

“We’ve certainly helped many folks land a new job or even their first job in the industry because they volunteered on a project site and were scouted by a design lead from a hiring firm. So it’s a win-win for everybody,” Sobecki says of the Designs for Dignity program.

As all of these different groups and programs continue to expand, we also begin to see the community of designers itself strengthen—creating a virtuous cycle of philanthropy that will (hopefully) be strong enough to continue on once our billings cycle gives way to the next economic boom.

What pro bono projects have given you the most satisfaction? Share your stories and photos with us at our Facebook page.



Community Design Resource Center
of Boston
Gretchen Schneider
Executive Director
The BSA Space
290 Congress Street
2nd Floor
Boston, MA  02110

Rachel Crawford
Acting Director
111 5th Avenue
12th Floor
New York, NY 10003


The 1%
Amy Ress
Program Manager

Designs for Dignity
Jennifer Sobecki
Executive Director
222 Merchandise Mart Plaza
Suite 9-102
Chicago, IL 60654