Small Businesses Need Pro Bono Too

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Small Businesses Need Pro Bono Too

By Catherine Ward, Taproot Foundation
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#probono: not just for nonprofits? @taprootfound's case to make pro bono available to small businesses in need

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Thursday, October 31, 2013 - 4:30pm


Small businesses are the leading driver of job creation in the U.S. While this is an impressive fact, many entrepreneurs with plans to grow their businesses struggle to access the resources they need to expand and add new jobs to their payroll. What if businesses like these had access to pro bono services?  

Pro bono has become a dependable way for nonprofit organizations to build their capacity and to go deeper and further in achieving their intended impact. Pro bono consultants provide nonprofits with a wide range of support – including marketing, technology, design, finance, human resources, and strategy.  These talented professionals give their expertise at no cost because they know that their investment supports a good cause.  By building these organizations, they’re making their communities stronger.

What if this same kind of pro bono support was available to small businesses?  

Think about it:  small businesses deal with many of the same challenges that nonprofits face.  It’s not hard to imagine the small business owner who’s struggling to build an IT plan to support her growing operations, or who needs help thinking through the financial realities of expanding to a new location. 

Does the same impact equation that we apply to nonprofit organizations (pro bono service + organizational challenge = stronger organization and stronger community) apply to small businesses as well?

Consider this potential scenario:  Imagine that a pro bono consultant is helping a small immigrant-owned restaurant in a low-income neighborhood develop a marketing plan.  Could this pro bono consultant be doing something good for her community?  What if the increased revenue from this new marketing plan was enough to justify hiring a few new employees from the neighborhood?  Suddenly, this is not just a marketing plan that’s good for business – it’s looking pretty good for the neighborhood too. 

But, wait:  Businesses aren’t charities.   Shouldn’t they rise and fall with market demand?  When a pro bono consultant works with a small business on solving a key issue, is that diverting resources that the business would have otherwise spent buying professional services from another business?  Perhaps even another small businessthat also needs the support?

This is a complex question.  I was often asked a similar question in a previous role I held within the Bloomberg Administration, where I was responsible for directing a set of no-cost capacity-building services for small businesses.  As the government, what was the value of offering free assistance to small businesses that were starting, operating, and expanding in the city?  Were we interfering with the market? 

Indeed we were.  Or, rather, per our justification, we were addressing a problem with the market.  After all, the market isn’t always fair.  There are many entrepreneurs who do not have access to the financing, education, network, and other resources they need to thrive.  By making these offerings available to all businesses – including the ones that but for us might not have grown and thrived – we believed that our intervention was justified.  Our job wasn’t to pick the winners; it was to create the conditions in which the winners could win.  We were helping to level the playing field. 

I think of things in much the same way when I consider whether pro bono services should be made available to small businesses.  I don’t advocate that every small business should receive pro bono support -- many entrepreneurs can and should buy the professional services they need on the market because they can afford them.  But what about those small businesses that have the potential to grow their revenues, add jobs to the economy, and deliver more tax revenue to their communities, but lack access or resources to reach their next level of growth?  I argue that it’s those small businesses that we need to support. To do this, we must build out the criteria that would qualify which businesses should – and shouldn’t – be eligible for pro bono support.  And then we need to create the marketplace where this work can happen.

What do you think?  

Catherine is a Senior Consultant in Taproot’s Advisory Services practice.  She serves on the Microenterprise Advisory Council at Volunteers of Legal Service, where she helps to ensure that small businesses in need have access to pro bono legal assistance.  Previously, she was the Director of NYC Business Solutions within the City of New York’s Department of Small Business Services. 

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