Good deed for the day – pro bono work

One of the side effects of the current economic climate is that many
charities are seeking pro bono help in order to offset their falling income. If
available, pro bono work can be hugely beneficial, but there are also downsides
to beware.

Why do companies offer pro bono work?
Often it comes down to corporate social responsibility (CSR) as companies like
to be seen to be doing their bit. But with certain charities, if companies offer
services pro bono it’s potentially a way of getting their foot in the door,
particularly if it is a group of charity clients that they may not normally act
for. The cynic would say it’s merely a marketing tool, and in some cases it is a
means to ask for more lucrative work in other areas.

However, this is not always the case, and there are genuine cases where
organisations such as charities can derive huge benefit from companies willing
to offer their services for free. When in-house resources and expertise are
limited, pro bono advice can relieve a significant burden and allow the charity
to focus its efforts elsewhere.

Valuable approach
It may sound a little controversial to some, but we rarely offer totally free
pro bono work. Instead, we prefer to support all of our charity clients by
openly discounting our fees by 25%. We do this for three main reasons. Firstly,
it is our way of providing a benefit to all charities, not just a chosen few, in
the most direct way possible. We essentially see it as fairer.

Secondly, in our experience, if any organisations, not just charities,
receive a service for free, they often don’t value that service. This can have a
negative impact commercially. Not paying for something can mean they pay less
attention to it, which can have a real effect when it comes to the financials or
running of a charity. Thirdly, it can be the case that those providing the
service will potentially put it towards the bottom of their priority list. If
you’re not earning a fee out of providing a service, you aren’t pushed to put
that service above something that you are being paid for.

If you are considering taking up of an offer of pro bono work, you must
ensure that you do not take it for granted. When you get something for free,
your mindset is slightly different than if you are paying for it, albeit at a
reduced cost. It therefore has an impact on the organisation commercially. In
order to obtain the full benefit you must put the required time and effort into
the relationship, much as you would if you were paying for the service.

The same can be true of the commitment from the company providing the
service, who may have less incentive to provide a high standard of work. But,
despite the bargaining position being compromised, if managed correctly the
relationship can be beneficial to both parties. It is essential to be aware of
some of the factors which can damage the relationship.

Managing the risks
It is always difficult to refuse an offer of something for nothing but you
should also take into account the associated risks. What’s the worst that could
happen? For example, as a charity it is possible that you are not assessing
accurately the level of service that you require, because it is free. Ensure
that you are aware of the risks and potential pitfalls and you are far more
likely to benefit your organisation by seeking pro bono work.

There is also the possibility that the charity might get to the position
where they can not afford to operate without the pro bono service. What happens
to the charity if the service is then withdrawn? If charities continue to expect
to receive everything on a pro bono basis, does this damage their own standing?

We believe that reduced rates are more beneficial and fairer to both parties,
and it still allows us to deliver a high level of service. This works for us and
for our clients and allows us to give something back to the community.

Sailesh Mehta is charities group partner at HW Fisher & Company


I’ve always been impressed by the legal profession’s commitment to pro bono
work. Many individual tax professionals do of course provide many hours of such
work but I don’t feel that pro bono work has the profile it deserves amongst tax
advisers. I would like to see whether we can begin to change this.

This is one of my aims during my year as president of the CIoT, which runs
until next spring. The institute has long taken an interest in supporting the
provision of free advice to those who cannot afford to pay a professional tax
adviser. Tax help for Older People (TOP) was launched by our Low Incomes Tax
Reform Group back in 2001 and has gone from strength-to-strength. Over 600 tax
advisers are already involved, but the demand is such that they could do with
hundreds more. Tax Aid (part-funded by the institute) also do fantastic work,
but again are looking for more volunteers to provide advice, particularly in
central London.

Of course we are all busy people, but an investment of just a few hours a
month is all that is needed. So, if you are a tax adviser, please consider
joining the ranks of those providing pro bono tax advice. It really is valuable.
The experience is rewarding. And demand is growing.

Andrew Hubbard is president of the CIoT

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