Pro bono work: it’s all for the public good

With the legal profession soon to be trumpeting the forthcoming seventh
annual pro bono week, the accountancy profession appears to lag behind in either
its commitment to, or its publicity of, its pro bono work.

Is it a misconception that practices have nothing to offer voluntary and
community organisations, or is there a more cynical driver? Some might argue
that accountancy firms lack the legal profession’s motivator of having to
justify corporate social responsibility (CSR) performance when tendering for
public sector contracts.

Historically, even legal pro bono work was frowned upon as it took people
away from fee-earning work. ‘It all had to be done on one’s own initiative
without impinging on work time’, remembers one partner at a leading Midlands law
firm. But, she reflects ‘it is all different, now that pro bono is seen as the
next great marketing initiative’. So are some accountants missing a trick?

Ironically, while the big players provide comprehensive advice to corporate
clients on how to meet their own CSR requirements, there may be more that the
accountants themselves could be doing in their own backyard. While the larger
firms often equate pro bono with community outreach ­ school reading schemes and
local community projects ­ only a very few offer any core business services,
using pre-existing staff expertise for the wider good.

But haunted by constraints of remaining independent, and fears of
compromising future working relationships, is there really anything for the
accountancy profession to bring to the pro bono party?

Jo Crossley, partnership development manager for Business in the Community,
thinks so. ‘Accountancy firms sometimes underestimate what they have to offer
the voluntary and community sectors.

‘While ongoing traditional audit services may not be an appropriate pro bono
offering, many firms could help with one-off projects such as financial
forecasting, business planning or tax advice.

‘They could also get in-house marketing divisions to support the set-up and
marketing of community organisations,’ she says.

If pro bono is indeed the new marketing mantra, then perhaps an easily
swallowed inducement for the reluctant philanthropist is the prospect of
improved recruitment, better staff retention and cross-sector networking.

And amid the glow of mutual goodwill, who would begrudge the occasional
accountant elbowing a lawyer out of the limelight in a publicity shot?

Katherine Southby is head of regulatory law at Gordons

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