Why Pro Bono Matches Break Down – And How to Avoid It

October 20, 2014

Fall is traditionally a time to take stock, set new goals, and get back to work and study with renewed energy. In the spirit of furthering our own pro bono education, Spark has been hard at work this fall, studying some of our past matches and building theory. Those of us who have ever orchestrated a match between non-profit organizations and pro bono consultants know that from time to time, things go sideways. The best and most productive-looking match can limp along, break down, or even die if not helped out with preventative and corrective measures.

We looked back over our past three years of matchmaking, and did a careful review of feedback and evaluations from both organizations and volunteers, as well as our own case notes. The first discovery we made when sorting through the piles of data was good news: only 25% of the matches we made had some sort of difficulty or negative feedback attached to them, and a number of these more complicated matches completed the project regardless. This means three quarters of the time, things go well. Not too shabby!

With that in mind, we set out to determine what the most likely points of failure are, and how we can do our part to help steer matches clear of them.

1. Prioritize the match

We discovered that the most common reason for match difficulties is related to organizations not prioritizing the match by dedicating the necessary staff time – and effort – to work with the pro bono consultant.

The fact that this is the most common reason matches hit roadblocks isn’t surprising. Non-profits are busy doing important, complex, and often difficult work in their communities, and almost always getting it done with limited resources. However, the fact that they’ve approached us to find them pro bono help means that they know something could be done better. It’s our hope and expectation that they’ll find the time to work with the pro bono consultant as needed, whether that’s making time to meet, respond to emails, or do their portion of the work to make the project succeed.

When working to get an organization ready for a match, Spark stresses the amount of time and energy required throughout the match, as organizations orient, get information to, and collaborate with pro bono volunteers. In fact, it’s helpful to think of pro bono work as paid work, with the same dedication to timeliness, participation, as well as high quality work and results, on both sides. During an assessment meeting, we discuss this with the organization, and check to make sure they are able to commit the time to take it on. Then once a match is made we keep in touch to make sure that things are progressing well, and everyone is getting what they need, when they need it.

2. Make sure everyone’s on the same page

The second area of potential match difficulty is related to differing expectations of the match. This could come from different visions of what the end goal is, what will be produced along the way, by when, and the role each person plays within the project.

One of the ways Spark helps combat this is to draw up a solid match agreement with all parties present, before the work starts. We begin the process of developing the agreement with a facilitated discussion about the expected outcome of the match and the ways that will be reached, then together we outline all the relevant details. If there are divergent ideas and proposed solutions, these need to be clarified and negotiated until everyone agrees, and both sides want to proceed in working towards that common end result.

Once a common solution has been agreed upon, we facilitate the creation of a robust work plan which includes: the planned outcome; individual tasks and related timelines; an estimate of how many volunteer hours are involved; and the roles and additional responsibilities of each party involved in the match. Working out all of these details together and completing a thorough match agreement (which all parties literally sign) is a strong preventative measure to ensure the enduring health and results of the match.

3. Beware of overcommitment

The third most common area of difficulty is related to volunteers overcommitting themselves. This can take the form of overcommitting on time, skill, or experience.

Many people want to help out, and the organizations that Spark works with are doing important work to help make Winnipeg stronger. However, when volunteers are a bit too optimistic about their abilities, it can add extra challenges to their volunteer experience, and possibly add those challenges to the already-full plate of the person working for the non-profit getting the assistance. We understand that our volunteers are busy people, and that sometimes life and work can get in the way of good intentions. That’s why it’s important that volunteers think critically about their expertise, skills, and time, helping to create healthy matches that produce what the organization needs, on a timeline that works for everyone.

Spark works to prevent volunteer overcommitments through a thorough assessment of a prospective volunteer’s skill sets, level of expertise, and prior experience related to similar projects or processes. We make sure to ask the volunteer which type of project they feel most confident offering their pro bono assistance on, and then match the volunteer with a project that is a good fit for them. Part of the facilitated conversation mentioned above includes a discussion of how many hours of the volunteer’s time will be necessary to complete each of the various stages of the project, and checking with the volunteer to make sure that the total commitment is realistic. We also try to be honest about the fact that sometimes timelines slip – if that happens, will both the volunteer and organization have time to keep working together? After the work begins, Spark checks in frequently: if things are dragging or unexpected difficulties arise, the work plan can be reevaluated and adjusted if necessary.

4. Stay in touch!

The fourth most common reason for match difficulty or breakdown is related to inadequate communication, from either the volunteer or the organization (or both). It’s a bit obvious, but for a project to be successful, the lines of communication must stay open.

In our experience, if there’s an extended period of silence from either side, even if work is happening behind the scenes, things can get complicated. A lack of communication can be interpreted (sometimes correctly) as a lack of commitment to the project, dissatisfaction with the work, or as a change in priorities. Again, the best way to prevent this is to lay the proper groundwork for the match: a good work plan with specific timelines, and encouragement to both sides to treat the pro bono assistance as they would paid work. A discussion of expectations around communication can be useful – how does each side prefer to be contacted (phone calls? email? text?)?

Overtly stating and getting agreement on the first steps of the work (who is responsible for contacting whom, or getting which information to who by when) gets things off to a good start, and sets the stage for successful match completion. Spark also does frequent check ins with both sides to see how things are going, and takes corrective steps when necessary to keep things moving forward.


While making matches includes tangibles such as a defined need and a willing volunteer, through this review we’ve discovered some great tips to help make sure that some of the more intangible things don’t drag down the success of a project. We know that it’s important that all sides:

  • are able to dedicate the necessary time to the match.
  • know what the goal is, and agree how to get there.
  • have the skill and experience to complete the match.
  • stay in touch with each other, including us.

With these points in mind, we look forward to creating new, interesting matches for Winnipeg’s community development sector.

Katie Schewe is a Recruitment Co-ordinator for Spark, where she works to connect Winnipeg’s vast and varied talents to support nonprofits in their work. Through her experience working in the financial service industry and communications, Katie brings a unique perspective to community collaboration and motivating volunteer engagement to support the work of local organizations. Katie is a graduate of Canadian Mennonite Bible College and the University of Winnipeg. She enjoys networking to inspire new connections, matches, and partnerships.