Spark Meets World – Reflections from the Global Pro Bono Summit

April 17, 2014

When Katie and I arrived at the Second Annual Global Pro Bono Summit in San Francisco, it felt like stepping into a family reunion. It was like meeting Spark’s long-lost relatives: some we’d heard about, some we’d heard rumours of, and many we had no idea existed. But there they were, in the flesh, and sharing the same strange creative space we do as intermediaries between community-based organizations, and volunteers with specialized skills (or “pro bono consultants” in the language of our new family!).

When Spark was created nine years ago, some of Winnipeg’s community organizations, activists, and funders envisioned a vehicle that would help to build capacity and strength in the community economic development sector by matching organizations – who sometimes don’t know what exact skills would be best to address their specific challenges, or can’t afford to hire consultants or new staff to address those challenges – with professionals looking to give back to their community by donating their time and skills. Scans of the national and international pro bono landscape were done at the beginning, and again five years ago. Few services were doing this kind of work, and nothing was found that really fit the wished-for model, or that we could collaborate or share ideas and resources with.

Building our local pro bono movement was kind of like trying to build a bicycle without ever having ridden or even seen one, and we’ve done a lot of experimentation while developing the model. A number of approaches and methods haven’t worked (like asking professionals to sign up for a pre-pledged yearly amount of service, carte blanche), but many of our experiments have (like formalized match agreements). Along the way, we have made almost 300 matches, leveraging close to a million dollars in relevant, specific, and high quality assistance for the community development sector, where and when organizations have needed it the most.

It’s been an incredible journey so far. Our model is local, home-grown, and a bit quirky – a lot like Winnipeg itself.

Photo used with permission from Jieun Choi

A couple of years ago we began to hear about US-based groups like Catchafire and the Taproot Foundation (thank you, internet!) and started to reach out, as well as follow them on social media to see what they’re up to. We discovered that the First Annual Global Pro Bono Summit was happening in New York City in 2013 and eagerly followed the proceedings on Twitter. We were stunned to discover that there are groups from all over the world – including Endeavour, our new pals from Toronto – doing pro bono matching work. It seemed like it was destiny that our paths would cross, and after reaching out to Taproot and the Summit’s co-sponsor the BMW Foundation, we finally met the organizations and great people who form part of the global pro bono intermediary family, and shared four jam-packed days of information sharing, problem solving, strategizing, and, of course, socializing.

It’s taking us awhile to process everything that we’ve learned, but we’re happy in the knowledge that we’ve started down a new road – one that we’re not alone on! There were 27 representatives from 20 organizations in 14 different countries, including France, Saudi Arabia, Scotland, Canada, Hungary, China, South Korea, Portugal, Japan, Singapore, Slovakia, Germany, the United States and the Netherlands.

Three things really stood out:

  1. Sometimes many people have the same good idea at the same time, all around the world.

A number of other pro bono intermediaries started around the same time that Spark did.

  1. There are many ways of going about the same work.

Some intermediaries create teams to help a non-profit, while others work with one particular business to place a team of their employees in a pro bono opportunity. Others (like Spark) mostly match one volunteer to one organization. Some work globally, some locally. Some provide financial as well as pro bono assistance. Some of the models are focused on done-in–a-day pro bono marathons, others arrange matches that take place over months.

  1. There are more people wanting to be involved as pro bono consultants than there are non-profits ready or able to take on the time and resource commitment of working with a volunteer and carrying on the work after the volunteer is done.

Spark has seen this disparity in supply and demand for years, but we are not alone in this. Our new family reports the same thing, all around the world. Challenges of organizational readiness, exact skill fit, timing and many more intangibles make matchmaking challenging!

One thing that we’ve been doing since returning is changing our language around the matches we make – expect to see less use of “skills-based volunteers,” and more “Pro Bono Consultants”. This change has a double intention: first, by using the term “pro bono” to refer to the work that Spark volunteers do, we’ll be helping spread the understanding that pro bono refers to more than just legal services, and; secondly, we’re aligning Spark with the global pro bono movement.

There’s so much interest in pro bono, all around the world. Thanks to our new family ties, we now know that Spark is part of a global movement. An intention of the ongoing summit series is to foster a real shift in the world, creating a permanent and foundational place for pro bono work across professional disciplines and in the corporate sector.

We’re on an interesting road, and we look forward to journeying with our fellow pro bono intermediaries, and with Winnipeg’s community development sector and pro bono consultants. If you’re in Winnipeg, join us!

Geoff Ripat is the Program Manager of Spark, a service that matches community development and CED projects and organizations with pro-bono consultants in Winnipeg. Geoff has worked and volunteered in Winnipeg’s inner city for over 15 years.

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