Interface Hosts Pro Bono Leaders Summit

Amy Ress

Change can occur by force or by need, but to have the greatest probability of impact, change must happen through leadership. On September 12-14, 2012, the first-ever Pro Bono Leaders Summit convened the vanguard of architecture and design firms creating industry change in an effort to ask the important questions and begin to create the answers.

Public Architecture and Interface, assembled a core group of pro bono leaders in architecture and design, law, and corporate philanthropy to begin a conversation focused on advancing the design profession’s intelligence and effectiveness in the social impact area. The Summit was represented by a diverse cross-section of the largest, most influential firms and emergent small offices. These included: ASID, Bernheimer Architecture, LLC, Cannon Design, Eskew+Dumez+Ripple, Gensler, HKS, Inc., HOK, Interboro Partners, Interface Studio Architects, McCall Design Group, MP Studios, Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe, Perkins + Will, The Miller Hull Partnership, LLC, True Impact, Vincent James & Associates, Works Partnership Architecture, and WRNS Studio.

State of the movement
Interface laid the foundation for action by sharing their strengths-based, entrepreneurial culture that promotes positive change and the realization of new ideas and goals within their organization.

The Summit then kicked off with attending firms sharing their current pro bono practices in a round table discussion. The dialogue centered on each firm’s approach, including the current opportunities and challenges of integrating this work into staffing, project management and service delivery, R&D, marketing, and other related activities.

Attendees were asked to make note of the following: What makes these projects different? What can be achieved? What presents a challenge? What is the impact on the organization being served? What is the impact on the design firm providing the service? Hundreds of salient points were documented, and categories began to emerge from these observations that would later become the ideas that inspire action, and eventually lead to impactful change.

What can we learn from law?
William Alderman, a Partner at the law firm Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe, turned the dialogue to the legal profession, a group that has long promoted pro bono service as a critically valuable aspect of professional practice.

For lawyers, the watershed moment occurred in 1993 when the American Bar Association adopted Model Rule 6.1: Every lawyer has a professional responsibility to provide legal services to those unable to pay. A lawyer should aspire to render at least 50 hours of pro bono public legal services per year.

What does this mean for the design professions? What if we had a working definition for the various approaches to pro bono work that was adopted by the professional associations, AIA, ASID, IIDA, ASLA and the rest?

Unlike the various approaches to pro bono that are currently practiced by the design professions, the legal profession strictly defines pro bono as no fee. Reduced fee is good and has a purpose, but it’s not pro bono. Moreover, law schools are the best promoters of pro bono culture. They are the training grounds, as no law student comes out of school without some experience doing pro bono work. What if pro bono service was better integrated into design school curricula?

When asked if there has been a drop in pro bono service since the economic downturn, Alderman says, “not substantially.” It’s competitive for law firms to do pro bono work. In part, this is due to The American Lawyer tracking firms’ pro bono hours and the magazine’s promotion of firms doing more than 20 percent annually. “Their clients see these reports and want to be associated with supporting socially-responsible work.” What if Public Architecture, DesignIntelligence, Architect magazine, or another respected voice were to report the leading pro bono contributors or the impact of firms’ pro bono work on underserved communities?

Doing well by doing good
Most people remember the early 1990’s when environmental sustainability needed to be sold as a valuable component of practice; now it’s something every firm aspires to deliver. At the Summit, the consensus was in support of a triple bottom line approach. Social sustainability, as well as environmental and economic sustainability, should be part of every business. Interface took it a step further by suggesting that the principles of biomimicry can inspire change in the design industry. What if we looked at the genius of nature and natural systems to discover new paradigms and models of change?

There is also growing evidence that successful future business practices must balance profit with the public good, so how can designers make it an integral part of their business model? Farron Levy was introduced to address this question. Levy is the founder and president of True Impact, a consulting firm that helps organizations maximize and measure the social and business value of their operating practices. He argues that while pro bono work can have a significant social impact, there is more that firms should expect from these projects. Pro bono work must also drive firm goals.

The case for change
Reporting on social impact can be tricky. Time, money, and materials are easy to tally and can make for a good story. But that story is not inclusive of the full value. If the outputs are the goods and services provided, then a proxy for knowing if your time is well-leveraged would be to provide higher-skilled services that result in a bigger impact. More than exercising a personal interest or using a skill you’re already good at, pro bono work can be a way to develop new skills that can be repurposed on future fee-earning projects.

Outcomes are another obvious opportunity to show value and can provide the ideal metric for longer-term pro bono projects. Levy asks, “As a result of a pro bono service investment, how did the project change the targeted social condition and did it have a ripple effect on society?” The equation can be simplified to convert social impact into market value: divide the investment by the number of people impacted. The result can be made into an effectively humanized narrative.

Levy concluded that it’s important to introduce business goals for pro bono investments early in the planning stage. True Impact reports that when pro bono work is integrated into a business structure, it can support a broader set of business goals including recruiting top-level talent, business development, and risk mitigation. What if we had better tools to measure impact?

The Pro Bono Leaders Summit brought up many valuable “what if…” questions, far more than can be shared in this article. And while it is impossible to solve these challenges over the course of two days, there was an intense collaboration between the firms in attendance. Together, we prioritized the challenges and the “what ifs” and asked, “What would it take to make this happen?”

The Summit was a first and significant step to make powerful social change in the architecture and design professions. Every attendee left with some skin in the game and made a commitment to continue to work together to translate the questions into impactful actions, to support the broader A+D community in showing the value of pro bono design to improve lives as well as the benefits to business. Watch for more exciting reporting to come as the teamwork progresses.

Interface is proud to support Public Architecture and The 1% Program in its mission to promote design for social impact.

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