Andrea Nelson Trice

NexThought Monday – Money and Motivation: Why are some people willing to work at a social enterprise for free?

Editor’s note: Andrea Nelson Trice is a social scientist working on a book that seeks to define today’s best practices in social enterprise, with special focus on human relations. As part of her research, she is conducting an impact assessment of Jibu, a social enterprise that operates in D.R. Congo, Uganda and Rwanda. The firm equips emerging market entrepreneurs launching smart, organically profitable and safe water businesses. By being open about their frustrations and failures, co-founders Randy and Galen Welch hope they can be a help to others working in this space. The following is the second in a series of blogs based on Trice’s observations of their experiences. Part one is here.

No leader has all the skills needed to make a social enterprise succeed. Each of us must tap into others’ skill sets, often by hiring consultants to fill gaps. But when you can find people who will work pro bono that can be a fantastic option, as Randy and Galen’s field notes reveal:

September 2012 – Hired a few consultants to help us fill weaknesses in our experience and skill sets.

October 2012 – Have begun getting amazing volunteer help from Dave on franchises, Andy on website, and a number of others.

December 2012 – None of our hired consultants adding much value so we ended those relationships.

February 2013 – Dave, one of our volunteers, contributes extensively to developing our in-store procedures and operations.

September 2013 – We get introduced to Matt, who is a world class plastics engineer. He loves Africa and volunteers to help design new bottles for us gratis. Amazing guy! Matt joins us in Kenya to visit manufacturers. Incredible guy and adds incredible value. Knows which questions to ask and has sense of manufacturers’ capabilities, etc. Very encouraging having him join us.

January 2014 – Roger has provided immense value already with pro bono work helping us with structure, organization, configuration management control. Incredible resource and need – we have been missing all sorts of things and drowning in all the documents.

Hopefully, Randy and Galen’s experience with consultants is atypical, but their positive experience with pro bono partners is consistent with what I have heard from other social entrepreneurs. This blog explores why some people with excellent skills are willing to work for free and how you can enhance these valuable relationships.

Pro bono work clearly operates under a different set of rules than the typical business relationship. The complete term – pro bono publico – literally means “for the public good.” Someone has a set of skills that he or she is willing or even seeking to share with an organization for no pay in return. Why would someone decide to work for no pay? Perhaps they intuitively know what research is finding: The salary threshold for overall life satisfaction is between $50,000 and $75,000 in the U.S. Earning more than that does not lead to greater happiness.

If it isn’t money, then what do these people receive? Perhaps several things:

  • A satisfying way to use their skills and experience. Two-thirds of Americans in a recent study said they were not satisfied in their job. Lack of respect and recognition, as well as boredom, are frequent contributing factors. Taking on pro bono projects can be an excellent way to find fulfilling work that allows people to stretch themselves as they solve a complex problem and work outside what has often become a small, highly specialized world. Also, because they have little to prove, people working pro bono are free to be creative and to use their cumulative experiences in a way that often naturally solicits deep appreciation and respect from the social entrepreneurs.

  • Doing something meaningful with their life by contributing to the common good. A recent Gallup poll found 69 percent of Americans dissatisfied with the moral and ethical climate of the country. The focus in the media is often on the Millennial generation’s dissatisfaction with the status quo but this disease with the greed, deceit and self-focus that can characterize our culture cuts across age groups. For this reason, partnering with people whose primary goal is empowering individuals and helping them to thrive can be deeply rewarding.

  • An opportunity to collaborate toward a common goal as our society grows increasingly isolated from one another. Over the past 25 years, there has been a 58 percent drop in attending club meetings, a 43 percent drop in family dinners and a 35 percent drop in having friends over, according to the book, Bowling Alone. Pro bono work can lead to rich relationships as people work together toward a meaningful goal. This is consistent with Randy and Galen’s experience. The more they have invested in their relationships with the professionals providing pro bono work for Jibu, the more willing and excited these individuals have been to invest time and energy on the project.

  • An opportunity to live out their faith which, in many cases, calls them to care for the poor. Fifty-four percent of Americans in a recent poll indicated that religion is the most important or a very important aspect of their lives. For these individuals, involvement with a social enterprise may reflect, more than anything else, a desire to follow the tenets of their faith.

With this understanding of the social exchange behind pro bono work, how might you build a stronger relationship with your pro bono partners? Following are a few suggestions.

  • Recognize that, for many people, being respected and valued for their contribution is compensation that cannot be monetized. Communicating your appreciation for their work in writing can be especially powerful.

  • Regularly share your impact findings with everyone who has contributed their services.

  • Understand that many people would value feeling part of your team. Invite them on business trips or to meetings if you believe their participation would be useful to you.

Be aware that as we pursue our vision as social entrepreneurs, we have the opportunity to empower and enrich the lives of not only “the poor” but also individuals who look a lot like us.

Andrea Nelson Trice conducts impact assessments and research around social enterprise in the developing world.

business development, social enterprise