Tough love – balancing pro bono/corporate social responsibility with the bottom line

Many professional companies will take the time to provide services to some of their clients without a fee. In the legal profession, this is referred to as pro bono, from the Latin pro bono publico – all for the good of the public. In other professional circles we know it as Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), wherein a business has a sense of responsibility for the society in which it operates. The fundamental principle of pro bono and CSR work is that the business is giving something back.

The benefits of providing some services without charge are manifold. CSR allows people who may not be as financially solvent to afford to access services that otherwise may not be available to them. It can appear, from outside observation that the richest tranches of society are able to get the most exclusive services and support, whereas those who have not been so fortunate as to achieve wealth or high status are left to fend for themselves. If a company is able to offer their services free of charge, this somewhat levels the playing field. Injustices can be addressed, access to services that otherwise would not be available can be created, wrongs can be set right.

There are other, perhaps less altruistic reasons for taking on a client without charging a fee. Sometimes what they are bringing to you is so intriguing, you feel that you must take it – be it for a challenge or to satisfy your own curiosity. Although the client will ultimately benefit from the unique skills of the professional, the expert also draws value from the work – delightful job satisfaction, which scratches the itch of humdrum routines. For a seasoned specialist, the siren call of an unusual case can seduce you into taking it no matter what. Offering your services without charge may be an acceptable price to pay to get your hands on such a delicious challenge.

I feel that I have exalted the value of CSR, and indeed, I do feel that it has an important and valuable place within a responsible business. It is a method a company can use to give back to the community and to ensure it has a heart as well as corporate brain. However, it is also crucial that businesses don’t fall into the trap of becoming an undervalued commodity. People will often place importance on the things that cost them money – a £200,000 Ferrari will be more revered than a £500 hatchback. Correspondingly, a service that an individual has had to pay for, even save for, may carry more value than a service that has been provided to them for benevolently.

It’s surprising the number of people who fail to appreciate the different boundaries that exist between professional and client when carrying out this work. Working with others is an interpersonal experience and removing the payment mechanism gives rise to other motivations, which impact upon the relational process on both sides. The beneficiary of the work will often consider themselves thankful and lucky that they found a professional to pick up the cause for them. Equally, however, natural human reciprocity can be such that the work is seen as a gift, coming from a special relationship that exists between the client and the professional that can impute some element of affinity, connection, self-worth or even attraction in the relationships.

It is important, then, to encourage businesses and professionals to strike a balance when it comes to committing to acts of corporate social responsibility. While altruistic ventures are important and, indeed, should be celebrated, it is also necessary to consider the needs of the business as well as the needs of the community. Like a child needs nourishment and stimulation to grow, a business needs fiscal sustenance and a healthy, well-supported team to ensure it can survive. The company must turnover enough money to pay the required salaries, to ensure the upkeep of a safe and contemporary building in which to practice, or to promote their services, in order to viably continue as a business.

There are many platitudes that people will suggest to you when it comes to the idea of getting something for nothing, ‘there’s no such thing as a free lunch’ for example, that ring with suspicion and unpleasantness. However, some time and energy allotted to corporate social responsibility could give a vulnerable or less privileged client the ‘free lunch’ they need, or indeed an outcome that is otherwise unobtainable. It is an important, worthwhile, and incredibly valuable way for a business to give back to the local community. Whilst the company must protect itself, lest it find itself with no professional outlet within its given industry, it must also allow itself to be open to the prospect of altruistic use of their professional skills. If this is approached with a balanced mind and a generous heart, the possibilities will be endless.