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The Virtuous Circle

By John Peterson

The number of pro bono commitments by design firms has been steadily growing over the last few years. No doubt it’s part of a larger trend driven by the desire of professionals to be more socially engaged. There’s also the example of high-profile designers who have answered the call and helped raise the level of design for underserved populations to new functional and aesthetic heights. In turn, this higher bar has made pro bono service more engaging to the design community at large.

Yet, our association with this work tends to be architectural—we think of it in terms of emergency housing or rural school buildings. Aside from the very urgent design requirements of, say, Katrina-stricken New Orleans, much of the need for nonprofits is, in fact, in our own backyards—and it’s for the design of interiors.

In most cases, nonprofits don’t have the need or budgets for designing and constructing ground-up facilities. Instead, the majority of pro bono projects in this country involve providing counsel on the selection of offices and facilities from existing building stock or rethinking a nonprofit’s current facilities. Or they concern helping an organization define its goals, aspirations, and functional as well as communications needs, and then redesigning a space that already exists to support these goals.

Setting a Precedent
Unlike in the legal profession—where pro bono work is formalized into law school curricula, integral to a firm’s operations, and deeply embedded into the field’s culture in general—the design profession is only just beginning to put pro bono requirements into place. Early adopters like Perkins + Will have established company-wide pro bono policies, and a few years ago the AIA expanded its Ethical Standards to include pro bono services. While there are, of course, these and other exceptions, to date design firms and the profession at large haven’t made very good use of pro bono service.

Pro bono projects remain the lesser-loved stepchildren of design practices. These are the projects that we typically fit in between our paying jobs, that don’t make the portfolio, or that we hand off to the less experienced staff. And we also expect less from these projects. The reality, however, is that we are being compensated, even if not in monetary terms. Pro bono service, I will argue, is good for business.
We also often lower our design expectations for these projects under the misguided notion that the highest level of design is inappropriate for the populations that most nonprofits serve. However, not only can we elevate design expectations for pro bono service, but if the design does not respond to the particular needs of a community, it isn’t good design.

At the same time, just as some leaders in the design profession have been reluctant to formalize their commitment, nonprofit and philanthropic leaders are often so focused on the urgency of their day-to-day work that they can be slow to take advantage of opportunities that seem tangential to their primary task. For instance, they may find it difficult to invest in their own work environment when doing so would divert resources from causes like overcoming illiteracy or reducing domestic violence. Organizations shouldn’t, of course, invest in facilities if doing so doesn’t ultimately improve their bottom line: advancing their mission. But good design can do exactly that.

Beyond Good Intentions
But why should interior designers devote their time and expertise to pro bono work? Because it should be done? Because it’s good? Many would argue that all of us have a responsibility to “give back,” and, moreover, that designers have a professional responsibility to provide services to those who can’t otherwise afford them. This is a reasonable argument, yet it’s one that fails to mobilize most designers. Pro bono service is a good thing to do—although my definition of “good” is more expansive than what one might assume. Charitable intention is important, but the fire of charity can be fueled by exploring richer and more compelling reasons as to why people might engage in this work.

All generous acts involve self-serving motives. At the very least, they make us feel good. But beyond the emotional benefits of good citizenship, pro bono service offers very practical benefits for designers: 1) It expands horizons—it allows designers to embark on new types of projects, to broaden their scope of services, and to network with new industries and communities; 2) It launches designers into leading, strategic roles with clients; 3) It offers the potential for highly creative and innovative work; 4) It leads to impactful public relations and marketing campaigns; and 5) It energizes and engages design staff. Let’s not forget that design firms need to earn a profit to stay healthy, so responsible self-centered motivations are appropriate when taking on pro bono projects.

Let’s look just at the client-designer relationship benefit of pro bono service. These projects routinely position the designer in an influential consultative capacity compared with conventional fee-generating work. The designer comes to the table as more of an equal, and often pro bono clients come to rely on their designers for a broader set of services, so designers find themselves in the role of a trusted advisor.

For the Homeless Prenatal Program, one of my firm’s pro bono clients, our most significant contribution was in helping them negotiate the volatile San Francisco real estate market. We counseled them to sell the property they had purchased for a new facility and helped them find an appropriate existing space. While we only made minor design changes to their new space, the resulting $2 million-plus in savings allowed them to serve 1,300 additional families.

The Agreement
One might think that this is all about money: pro bono clients will ask for more services because they cost little or nothing. Cost likely has some influence, but the gift of the designers’ time and talents conveys to their client that they are dedicated to the same goals. Pro bono or not, the trust of the client is the most significant component of realizing good design.

The pro bono relationship is not without its challenges. First, money is our society’s primary tool to communicate the value and limits of service in most business relationships, and in its absence, a different but equally clear understanding of worth is needed. The simplest way to achieve this is to simulate the exchange of money by establishing budgets based on the designer’s donation and providing clients with invoices of time spent as the project moves toward completion. The budget and process for addressing additional services should be spelled out in a contractual agreement.

Second, coming to terms with spending tens of thousands of dollars for design services helps provide the clarity of purpose and disciplined decision-making that a client must contribute to a project. Maintaining focus without this motivation is the most vexing problem to overcome; it requires continuous frank and direct communication between designer and client.

Design Builds Capacity
The most rewarding part of pro bono service for designers is that we are able to truly make an impact on nonprofit organizations. We’re able to employ the power of design expertise as an innovative tool for addressing core mission goals. Often the work comes at a time of transition for these entities, and designers can play a leading role in determining how their physical surroundings can further organizational objectives. Not least, these spaces are frequently the vital nexus of a range of stakeholders from staff, clients, volunteers, and patrons to funders.

After collecting dozens of case studies on pro bono projects, it has become patent to me that design services—and often Interior Design in particular—yield significant rewards for these organizations. Volunteer numbers increase, staff recruitment improves, and without a doubt it positively affects funding. The Homeless Prenatal Program experienced a tenfold increase in an annual donation by one longtime funder after her tour of their new facility. For Hands On, an Atlanta nonprofit, the new space, designed by Jova/Daniels/Busby, was so successful that the national organization established its headquarters there rather than in Washington, DC, as was expected.

The social sector calls this “building capacity”—where organizations enhance their ability to achieve measurable and sustainable results, in these cases through improved physical, and most often specifically interior, environments. These outcomes are a far cry from what most nonprofit leaders typically expect from a design professional, and it’s likely most designers are unaware of the pivotal role they can play for nonprofits.

Designer as Entrepreneur
Just as physicians help set the direction of health policy, designers should participate in identifying problems in the built environment. Some of the greatest value that designers can provide is to identify problems that others are unable to see. Yet designers think of themselves not as problem identifiers, but as problem solvers. Someone hires us to tackle a desire, an obstacle, or a dream, and we go to work. But why must we wait? Do we not see worthy problems to solve on our way to work every day?

Pro bono service provides designers with the opportunity to take the initiative. We have considerable influence over the selection and development of a pro bono project. Just as financial donors select and work with nonprofits to create the best use of their money, designers can similarly guide the focus and use of their gift. This flies in the face of how designers typically approach pro bono projects.

Once design firms decide to commit a portion of their time to pro bono service, we are free to invest our talents where we see fit. Pursuing our own project isn’t easy, but it is deeply rewarding. It requires that we employ the entrepreneurial skills that are familiar to us but underutilized, like developing appropriate business models and convincing others with complementary expertise that a problem is worthy of their investment, too, because none of us can solve these kinds of issues alone. Interior designers can also be integral to pulling together resources for projects, such as tapping our relationships with manufacturers, vendors, and partners for donations of much needed materials, products, and services.

Design Impact
Through my private practice, I have deeply enjoyed serving my clients over the years. Most of those clients have been part of the small group of people who could afford to pay my firm to design environments that expressed their desires and lifestyles. It was only when I tried to have an impact on the broader community that I felt the severe limits of our profession’s reach. I have come to see pro bono service as a tool that enables us to immediately engage the wider population, which can’t afford our services, and to begin to address the monumental need around us.

Although a few pro bono projects a year can’t change the world, they can incubate models of service that are affordable to populations with limited means and attractive to the philanthropies that fund the social-service sector. Little by little these models also help to raise awareness of the impact that design expertise can have on organizations. If we can abandon our entrenched professional limitations, stop waiting for the phone to ring, and embrace our ability to be entrepreneurial, then we can build a stronger profession and a better world.

This article is based on “Why Pro Bono?” the preface to The Power of Pro Bono: 40 Stories about Design for the Public Good by Architects and Their Clients, ed. John Cary and Public Architecture (Metropolis Books, 2010).

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