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Last year the San Francisco Office was excited to offer pro-bono design and documentation services to a  halfway-house nonprofit residential treatment center. The plan was to solicit material donations and have a volunteer construction day to build therapy gardens for the facility.  We collaborated with the organization’s directors and staff to make a survey, conduct soil tests, do concept designs and begin to develop details. 

Unfortunately, the nonprofit didn’t own the property, something our design team was unaware of.  When the landlord was shown our plans, they flatly refused any improvements. They no longer wanted the halfway-house as a tenant and had no interest in the grounds being improved for residents.  Thus, a couple hundred volunteer hours abruptly culminated in a complete lack of action.

As the informal project manager for this effort, I felt both disappointed and guilty for wasting my team’s time.  I should have thought to ask if the organization we were working for owned the facility.  Based on the confidence the program director had about the grounds, it never occurred to me that this would be an issue.  A hard lesson learned. 

Reflecting on this experience, I remembered a document developed by DesignConnect, a volunteer community design organization at Cornell University. Each semester, cities and towns in Upstate New York apply for student teams to study local issues and produce vision documents. Over a number of projects, DesignConnect has gained institutional experience as to what volunteer opportunities are likely to be most productive for the communities and the student teams, and has developed questions to evaluate them. Ask yourself the following three key questions before committing to a pro-bono service so you can avoid traps like the one we encountered in our experience:

Who are you working for, and what is their interest in and capacity for the project?

The “client,” whether a nonprofit organization, community advocate, city agency, or individual, should be clearly identified before dedicating time to a project. As a design firm, many of our pro-bono efforts focus on making physical interventions in the world, although sometimes we are also educators and advocates.  For those projects that require physical interventions, it’s vital to have a client who will take ownership of the project and maintain or operate it after the volunteer effort is over. Some clients will request volunteer services for projects they are not particularly passionate about or dedicated to because the services are free.  A simple strategy to filter out opportunistic pro-bono clients is to request a nominal fee.  In addition to passion, can your client handle their part of the project? With volunteer efforts, your commitment can sometimes extend into developing the social capital behind a program, whether you’re ready for that role or not. 

Who are the decision makers for the project?

This was the key question that I should have investigated for the halfway house. Sometimes your client will say they are the only decision maker. You should push them for more information. Who has to provide approvals for the project? Is it a school district, neighborhood group? Who has jurisdiction over the land in question, and who are the owners? Once you determine the decision makers, then you can better understand the scope of your commitment. Engaging all the decision makers at the beginning of the project is important to avoid being blindsided later in the process.

Who will use the project, and why do they merit volunteer work?

As landscape architects and planners, much of our effort is already in the realm of social impact design. But there are many reasons to volunteer:  a particular progressive issue that we typically don’t get to work on, a human need in an unfunded situation, an interesting design challenge. There is also strategic volunteerism, where we do pro-bono work for a client or project we are interested in developing a professional relationship with. It is important to identify why you and your team are committing to this project, and who will benefit from the work.

At SWA, our volunteer work is just as valuable as our paid work, and we want to make the most impact with our dedicated time.  There are opportunities in pro-bono work for deeply fulfilling work that benefits society, and I encourage everyone to participate in SWA’s commitment to the 1% program. Asking these questions should help other teams avoid pitfalls and be more effective in their volunteer efforts.


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Chris Hardy

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One Response to “Social Impact Design Practice: Key Questions to Ask Before Volunteering”

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