Pro bono clients like any other

The McCall Design Group, a 35-person firm based in San Francisco, also pledged its time through The 1% program and integrated pro bono service into its business model. The firm specializes in retail interiors for corporate giants like Banana Republic, Williams-Sonoma, Gap, and Victoria’s Secret. This national commercial work is balanced by local pro bono design efforts, including an ongoing relationship with Goodwill Industries to design new Goodwill retail stores.

“People say how good it feels to give back, but our primary motivations for doing this work go way beyond a kind of ‘feel-good’ result,” says the firm’s president, Michael McCall, AIA. “The work has to complement our own mission and goals, including by providing specialized training opportunities overseen by our managers, direct client contact, and increased morale generally.”

After a recent experience working on a cultural arts project for a significantly reduced fee, McCall recommends doing design work either for a full standard fee or completely pro bono. “Once you accept some money, you’re treated as a project manager and not a project partner,” says McCall. “The relationships and implications are very different.”

McCall also ensures that he has a written contract with each pro bono client. “In California, we’re actually required to have a written contract for pro bono projects, but it’s good practice to do so. We typically have very simple letter agreements with our pro bono clients.” As with any inexperienced client, it is often especially important to describe in detail the anticipated scope of work and the final work product in order to manage expectations.

Although pro bono service can be an opportunity to gain experience with different kinds of projects, liability issues remain a top consideration for firms, according to a recent survey by Public Architecture. “When possible, we try to do pro bono work in an arena that we feel comfortable with, which for us is a retail environment,” says McCall. Professional standards of care apply equally to work done for free as to traditional fee-for-service work, and providing professional liability coverage is part of the firm’s pro bono contribution.

Formal firm policies

Although many firms do pro bono work, very few have instituted policies and formal structures to support and guide this work. One firm that has been rigorous about formalizing its pro bono program is Perkins+Will, which crafted a firm- wide policy on pro bono with the aid of Public Architecture back in 2006 In 2007, the firm developed a firmwide Social Responsibility Initiative (SRI) mission statement and structure, including an SRI committee in each of the firm’s 22 offices in North America. These local committees are overseen by senior staff or principals representing three geographic regions. Individual offices take the lead in identifying local projects, and then office-designated leaders submit regular information and updates to the principal responsible for their region. Each submits a quarterly SRI report to the firm’s governing board. These include the total annual budgeted hours per office, as well as each office’s progress to date in achieving that amount.

Some of Perkins+Will’s pro bono design projects presently include transitional housing for homeless families in Seattle; a national training center for a children’s health nonprofit in Los Angeles; site selection for a nonprofit working to stop human trafficking in Houston; and master planning for a homeless and runaway youth facility in Minneapolis.

Asked to identify the single-most unique element of the SRI program, Mark Jolicoeur, the principal responsible for offices in the central region of the U.S., settled on the firm’s internal communication about the program. Perkins+Will established an SRI intranet site for the entire firm, where individual offices can track their pro bono projects, and SRI teams can learn from each other. The Chicago office is currently working on a central physical space where employees can post information about their community-based activities. Jolicoeur says, “This connection will have a positive impact on the overall collaboration that we need to accomplish high-quality work for all of our clients.”

Even with a firm the size of Perkins+Will, there is still a limit to what the firm can take on. According to Jolicoeur, “There is occasionally a tension between projects we know are good projects, and projects that fit our mission statement for SRI. We try to look critically at whether each new project helps us achieve our written SRI mission statement.” One reason to have a formal structure for a firm’s pro bono work is to credibly reject projects as well. “We’re simply trying to direct the firm’s resources in a targeted way that best fits the firm’s stated mission.”

Perkins+Will is also a member and financial sponsor of The 1% program. This is the firm’s second year of participation, and data being collected through the SRI program will be reported internally. Additionally, the 1 percent goal has been incorporated as part of the firm’s 2009 budgeting process. The opportunity to measure and assess the firm’s pro bono contribution will help communicate the extent of the firm’s commitment and provide a baseline on which to improve in future years.

Increasing public appreciation

It is possible to do well by doing good. Pro bono service is a way for large firms to have more local relevance and to build collaboration and teamwork. For smaller or more specialized firms, pro bono service can also be used to stand out in an otherwise crowded field. And, as more firms expand that access through pro bono design efforts, the public appreciation of the benefits and necessity of architectural services will also expand.