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Pro bono support in the Third Sector – a Consultant’s perspective

I’ve been providing pro bono support to Third Sector organisations since 2007 and have now worked with 10 of them.  Today, I presented some of my experience and learning to the OR Society’s Third Sector Special Interest Group.  My co-presenter was Amanda Briden from Participle, with whom I did a project earlier this year.  My slides are below…

I’ve been consulting in the Third Sector since 2004 and have provided pro bono support to 10 different organisations.  This work has included projects such as developing business plans, re-designing services and developing performance measurement systems.  It has also included non-project support such as running training workshops, facilitating away-days and providing one-to-one coaching and mentoring to trustees, directors and staff.

Why pro bono?  For me, I really enjoy working with people who both need and want help, and who are very appreciative of the sort of support they wouldn’t normally be able or prepared to pay for.  The diversity of the Third Sector also makes it fascinating and offers an incredibly broad range of opportunities to work with interesting people on worthwhile projects.

The major charities are probably pretty comfortable working with consultants, but the smaller ones may not be and may therefore be rather wary of “free consultancy”.

I believe it’s important not to treat these projects as “free consulting” and something to be fitted into a busy schedule if there’s time.  These are “proper” assignments and need to be managed in the same way you would any other client engagement.  Sticking to deadlines agreed with the client are particularly important, otherwise you might send the signal that you are just “fitting it in” around other projects.

However, in my experience, some of the organisations I’ve worked with have been relatively “immature” in their management thinking  and therefore a light touch approach to project management is called for.  More informal approaches and regular communication about progress tend to work better than the use of project templates and formality.

Finally, I’d say it’s really important to have a discussion early on about the type of role the client expects you to play.  Do they want you as a “pair of hands”, an “expert”, or do they want to work collaboratively and work out joint solutions?  That discussion can help avoid any misunderstandings or mis-matched expectations.

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