Pro bono publico, for the public good, has a long and noble history. The term (and practice) is usually associated with those working in law. But the idea of doing “good” in the business world is growing beyond the legal profession, and is being picked up by a host of product and service providers. A comprehensive overview of these pro-social business design innovations can be found in verynice’s Models of Impact map.
“The world is getting better and better, and worse and worse, faster and faster.”
— Tom Atlee
Tom Atlee’s observation beautifully captures the contradictions, paradoxes, opportunities, and anxieties of change in our times. If you want to find hope for the future, it is easily found. If you dread the looming disaster and civilization-level catastrophes we are facing, they are there, all around us. When we live with such ambiguity, it can confound and paralyze us, or it can challenge and liberate us. Therefore, how we frame the future matters more than ever. The metaphors, references, language, images, and visions we use to make sense of change have real, present, tangible effects on the way we think, how we behave, and the decisions we make.
Pro bono is a way to both describe a practice and an ethos. It is a big idea. It has enough clarity to be understood broadly, but it is capacious enough to include many variations of how “good” can be done. It has the gravitas (and timelessness?) of Latin! Ultimately pro bono is about giving— of time, services, and other resources— with the manifest goal of improving society in some direct way. It can be more or less formalized, and it can scale from the level of individuals (such as legal representation) to far-reaching social impact (such as volunteer programs like the Peace Corps).
Relatively recent innovations, such as social entrepreneurship, impact investing, sharing economy, collaborative consumption, and strategic reciprocity are all part of an emerging ‘web of good’ that is attempting to harness business, social, and technological tools to win the race against the forces of greed, corruption, and co-optation. We see good growing faster and faster, but so is desperation and precarity.
The idea of racing against the devil already leaves me exhausted. The idea of pro bono, however, is built upon values of duty, to be sure, but it also contains notions of abundance, and exuberance. Pro bono can have strategic advantages, but the driving force is the goal for individuals to do right by society by becoming better people. Being “human” in today’s business world remains difficult, but it doesn’t stop people from seeking out ways to do just that. Pro bono feels like a very human act of giving a damn, and doing something about it. Becoming better people may or may not lead directly to better futures, but I’ll take my chances.
Pro bono futurum is the idea that if we give our time and skills away (at whatever level or capacity we can) to institutions and practices that improve society, that those institutions will thrive and that future generations will benefit from these efforts. Pro bono isn’t free, and it requires more work and sacrifice from practitioners of it. The feedback mechanisms may be noisy, long, or even non-existent for us in the present, but we have to put some measure of trust that our actions will have systemic positive impact. A commitment to pro bono futurum could very likely pay off for most current and future generations, but one thing has been made certain in my year of giving half of my work away for free: it has definitely paid off for my own personal well-being and work satisfaction. With a side effect like that, pro bono is a medicine we should all be taking.