Pro Pro Bono

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

by Erika Templeton

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.

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