The State of Pro Bono Design

Efforts evolve from simply donated time to the development of a school of thought now being applied to businesses across the board


By Ashleigh VanHouten

The most surprising thing about pro bono design is not that despite ever-tightening budgets it still exists at all; it’s that the sector has evolved into what some are calling “post-pro bono.” This turns the movement into one that is less about special, one-off projects and more about thoughtful incorporation of public good into every aspect of a firm’s operations.

Architect John Cary has spent much of his high-profile career speaking and writing about social change, including within the TED Talk circuit. He’s also the author of The Power of Pro Bono, and believes that the current focus on pro bono design is simply designers getting back to the original reasons why they joined the industry. “The majority of designers go into this line of work with the intent of making a difference, yet the reality of the marketplace and the way that design services are contracted can make that very difficult for people to pursue in a sustainable way,” he said.

But that reality is changing. In 2002, John Peterson, founder and president of Public Architecture, discovered a lack of resources for designers and architects looking to incorporate pro bono and community-based projects. So, he and his team (including Cary, who is no longer with Public Architecture) developed The 1% program, where firms can pledge one percent of their working hours towards pro bono design. The program has found huge success, with 442,493 total pro bono hours pledged annually from more than 1,400 firms, including smaller boutique shops to big names like Perkins + Will, HOK, and Gensler. The program helps connect firms to non-profits and advises them on how best to achieve both their goals, as well as publicize their good work. Today, with so many firms going above and beyond the minimum pledge, they have recently begun the process of launching a new identity called 1+, because “1% is no longer enough.”

The program is just one way the industry is reaching out to non-profits to let them know the availability and importance of design to what they do. Because it’s not a lack of willing firms that halts progress in the pro bono arena: “The notion of pledging to do the work is an easy sell. The harder sell is, ironically, to the non-profits,” said Cary. “Either they don’t know that the services are available to them, or they don’t understand the ways in which design can increase their impact—they don’t see it as part of their toolbox.”

Better design equals better retention of employees, visitors, and volunteers. “You make the people you’re serving more comfortable, give them a more dignified, safe place that makes people happy to be in,” he said.

And then there are the myriad benefits to participating firms, says Amy Ross, director of Public Architecture’s 1% program. There are the obvious marketing and community relations benefits, but the most oft-cited might be the satisfaction and happiness gained from taking on a meaningful project. “Particularly for younger designers,” she said, “because they grew up with a different approach to the world, and social responsibility is something that really matters to them.” Combined with an opportunity for staff to work on projects outside of their normal range of expertise, these community-based projects can result in great recruitment and retention within firms.

Ross says their role at Public Architecture is to provide the network and knowledge necessary to help firms put their resources in the service of the public interest. She echoes Cary’s sentiment that pro bono shouldn’t be the only end game. “It’s the firms’ responsibility to adopt a larger social responsibility platform to add impact into all their projects, not just pro bono projects,” she said.

Cary agreed: “Pro bono is the beginning, a gateway drug; the hope is that these projects help shift the way firms pursue work and the types of clients they perceive as viable.”

A large part of Public Architecture’s work is providing guidelines for all involved parties, including the Pro Bono Design Handbook for Designers, a free online resource that helps design and architecture firms develop a framework to incorporate pro bono design into their practice. “We are always learning best practices through our network, so we do our best to report those best practices and create these knowledge resources,” she explained.

Despite any economic dips or bumps in the road, the future of pro bono design is bright with enthusiasm and the sheer joy generated by the people involved. “We’re continuing to see growth and the creation of even more professionalized sustainable models for doing this work,” said Cary. “I’m most excited about the next generation and what they’re going to do. I’m sure it will be even smarter and more efficient and innovative and impactful than we were able to dream up.”