Let's take matters into our own hands.

Manoverboard celebrated its 15th anniversary in January. While I’m not big on celebrating business-focused events, I am well aware that this is a milestone.

I’ve reflected upon this anniversary quite a bit, actually. Staying in business for a single year is hard. Doing it for 15 years somehow seems like defeating the odds.

But we did it.

And I’d like to think that the longevity has a little bit to do with giving away work.

I know that sounds counter-intuitive. It might even sound dangerous. But when I started the company in Brooklyn fifteen years ago, the dot-com economy had crashed and, in its wake, I saw an abundance of nonprofit organizations who were in dire need of design and technology services. My goal was to start a business that would help those nonprofits and, on occasion, give the work away for free or at a lower cost. That was the goal.

Give It Away

How can giving work away lead to a (relatively) profitable business that has grown over fifteen years? Doesn’t pro bono by its nature eat into the bottom line? Does a business that gives away work also give away its margin?

These are questions that purpose-driven companies are asking all of the time. As a B Corp, as a values-based design firm, and as a business that derives its income by helping other organizations, the question that remains is this: How do we help to the point where we don’t hurt?

The quick answer is that you carefully modulate between paid and unpaid work and only take on pro bono projects that are highly meaningful. The longer and more complicated answer is you constantly experiment between pro bono and paid projects and do your very best to assess whether a given client and their short-term and long-term needs will match the outcomes that all stakeholders are expecting. In other words, trial and error.

This is pretty much how Manoverboard has operated for the past decade a half. If a client came to us asking for pro bono assistance, I would make a judgement call based on known variables and then say yes and define the deliverables carefully or say no and thank you. On occasion, I would pro-actively ask a nonprofit that I admired (especially ones with new leadership) if they could use our design and communications services, either free or at a discounted rate.

And most of the time this worked. A pro bono client would gain a new visual identity or communications strategy or website and they’d be off to the races. Sometimes, it would lead to a long-term and mutually beneficial relationship. Other times, we would deliver a new brand or digital product that we all fell in love with—and then the nonprofit would not have the financial or strategic means of implementing it.

In almost all cases, the work was helpful to the client in some way and it was almost always meaningful for me and the team. Pro bono work is often the salve on the soul of everyday service delivery.

(Importantly, I do not consider giving away work a “hand-out” or a free gift. Pro bono is a way of giving back to the community, a means of taking responsibility for the privileges of living in a civil society. The term “pro bono” means “for the public good”. It does not mean “giving away”.)

A More Purposeful Way

Still, I think there is a better and more intentional way to give away work—a way that creates greater meaning, stronger team buy-in, and more deliberate connection to the community.

Last year, I put together a plan that would help us reach out to the local community, connect with larger nonprofits, and find those hidden or lesser known nonprofits and social enterprises that could use our services pro bono. We came up with a name for the initiative and created a visual identity for it.

It’s called the Purpose Project.

Five Steps for Impact as a Professional Services Firm

We put out a call to the Winnipeg community, asking folks to submit a short application about their needs, hopes and desires. Instead of us waiting for random organizations to request our help or us asking to help specific organizations, we would intentionally invert the system. We would ask organizations to apply for our grant.

We’re in early stages here and not many companies have implemented this type of service, yet. Here is the recipe used to make a Purpose Project.

Step 1: Do the Background Research

I set up some initial criteria for what I wanted to achieve as a business and then reached out to a few other B Corporations that had experience with delivering a service grant. In fact, this was a new term for me. I also scoured the web for a few salient examples of how a service grant could be implemented. The key piece here was learning about a new best practice.

Step 2: Create a Rubric of Criteria

Once the gears were set in motion, I used past experience to help determine what we would need to see in applications. I knew that we wanted to work with innovative organizations. I knew that we wanted to help some underdogs. I knew that we wanted to make sure that the organization could actually make use of our work. And I knew that we wanted some control over the work and what we delivered.

I created a tight rubric with five criteria for evaluation. These criteria are Demonstrated Need, Project Complexity and Size, Values Alignment, Outreach and Impact, and Achievability. Each of the criteria had a set of questions and five answers that were ranked on a scale from 1 to 5.

We also had to decide what services we would offer. As a small firm, we can only take on smaller but still meaningful pro bono projects.

In the mix were organizational identities, logo upgrades, presentation decks, collateral, and small websites.

Not in the mix was pretty much everything else: communications planning, substantial websites, application development, consulting, etc.

Step 3: Let It Be Known

You’d think it would be easy to let local organizations know about a project offering pro bono work, and it was (kind of). We designed a strong visual identity for the project (see above image) and then used social media to get the word out.

We also worked with our new partner, United Way of Winnipeg, to let their organizations know about the Purpose Project. I also asked other partners, friends, and colleagues to spread the word. I was expecting about 7 applications and, after about a month of marketing the Purpose Project, was surprised to receive 15.

Two notes should be mentioned. First, I felt that it was important not to waste the time of nonprofit applicants. Having worked with and within nonprofits most of my life, the last thing I want to do is raise expectations and ask directors to run through rings of fire. On our Purpose Project page, we kept the application form to a minimum.

Second, in the interest of transparency, we would let all applicants know the results of their applications and provide as much detail as possible about why they were (and were not) accepted. In being relatively open, the hope was that our notes would help (even in the smallest of ways) those organization who were not accepted.

Step 4: Discuss as a Team

We currently have four team members at Manoverboard. Every person read all of the applications and, when we came to the table, we openly discussed each one. We looked at every organization’s website and any other materials that were online. We then ranked each applicant based on the rubric which, in turn, resulted in a final number upon which to base our decisions. The deliberations took place over the course of a week with the meetings taking about 5 to 6 hours in total. Note that businesses who want to roll out a service grant, should also allot time for employees to review the rubric and read applications.

Step 5: Choose Wisely

Instead of choosing one applicant, we decided on two. By doing so, we could spread the risk of a project not going well and we could create value for two very different organizations.

I’m very happy to announce that the two organizations we chose are Bee Project Apiaries, a social enterprise that is advancing and advocating urban beekeeping in Winnipeg and providing education about the bees crisis, and Northern Lights Mentorship Group, that provides education, training and employment to Indigenous youth to rebuild their communities. It’s an honor to be working with both of our new clients.

Social Responsibility is Business Responsibility

Underlying this initiative is the recognition that businesses need to step up to the plate. Governments and nonprofits alone cannot solve the most challenging problems of our time—climate change, food security, species extinction, human rights and inequality.

Our current economy is built around the needs and wants of business. Only business entities have the ability to turn on a dime, create new opportunities, assess results and repeat. With that flexibility and power comes great responsibility to all stakeholders, including those that are marginalized, underserved and voiceless.

If you’re interested in implementing a service grant, I’d be happy to share our rubric and further details about the process.