hands raised of many colours

How to Give Back Without Breaking the Bank

  • December 04, 2015
  • Barbara Warner with Evert Akkerman

Charity begins at home

For lawyers and law firms, “I gave at the office” does not have to stop at writing a cheque or donating services. There is nothing wrong – and lots of things right – about doing pro bono work for a charitable or non profit client. However, like many other business decisions, the most obvious answer may not be the right fit.

Pro bono work can sometimes slide to the bottom of the pile despite our best intentions. Charitable clients may expect more donated time and expertise than a lawyer or law firm is prepared to give and relationships can be strained when assumptions are made about the value of the work and sacrifices required to make it happen.

Giving it away isn’t the only way to go. Charities and not-for-profits are willing to pay for the help they need, but must often limit how much they spend. They have lean budgets and unpredictable expenses (the latter often because most in this sector do not have in-house legal departments, unlike similarly sized organisations in the private and government sectors.) Within charities and non profits themselves, there is typically a strong emphasis on -- and sometimes a near obsession with -- ensuring donor dollars are for the benefit of their core mandate (be it building, selling and financing houses for low income families (Habitat for Humanity GTA), funding a wide range of social services in the community (United Way), or providing life-saving medical care to children (Sick Kids, CHEO).

These financial realities mean that charities and not-for-profits truly understand the value of a dollar. They appreciate whatever cost savings their legal service providers can reliably deliver.

Lawyers can help by offering flat rate packages for easily defined work, like performing a workplace investigation or providing basic drafting of standard policies. Like any other cash-strapped client, a charity or not-for-profit will appreciate the offer of a payment plan for larger bills. If a firm already provides a sliding scale for hourly rates based on an individual’s financial situation, then it would be wise to offer a sliding scale to organisational clients too.

It’s not always about the dollar

There are other ways to give back. Some of these methods can generate benefits to lawyers and law firms while fulfilling one’s desire to lend a hand.

Take, for example, the Adopt-a-Day program offered by Habitat for Humanity:

“Habitat GTA’s Adopt a Day Program is a great way to give back as a company” says Habitat GTA’s Sr. Director of Corporate Partnerhips, Angela Solomos. “We take care of everything to guarantee you and your staff a rewarding team building experience.  Some law firms use the Habitat build day experience as an orientation tool for new or young staff. Some use it for employee engagement and team building. Habitat GTA’s Adopt a Day team building program can help you create a day that combines giving back to the community with your own employee engagement objectives. It’s a great option if you’re looking for a unique way to support a worthwhile cause in your community”.

Lawyers can also share human resources by ‘lending out’ staff. Sending summer or articling students to a client’s workplace gives students a new perspective on legal work (in-house life is very different from law firms even in the same area of practice), it gives the charity more resources on the ground to achieve its mission, and it provides the law firm with another way to differentiate itself from the competition at hiring time.

When you’re motivated, it’s possible to integrate your charitable works with your brand: Baker & McKenzie supports the legal clinic at the 519, a registered charity and City of Toronto agency supporting the LGBTQ community in downtown Toronto. They’ve sent associates to help with legal advice, which gives them hands-on experience and keeps them in touch with law outside Bay Street and Wall Street. But the support from Baker & McKenzie doesn’t stop with staff, they’ve also invested in the renovation of the clinic to improve the physical space of the clinic for all who use it.

Lawyers can volunteer their time by participating as a general member of the public at a charitable client’s event (such as a fundraising run or a blood drive), or they can use their specialized skill set and professional experience in specific roles, such as serving on a board of directors or fundraising committee.

Larger firms are ideally placed to host events, such as “donation drives” for blood donations or used clothing. They can also lend out their staff and supplies (assuming all insurance issues and practical arrangements have been made) to support a charity’s event like a fun run or a New Year’s Day dip in Lake Ontario.

Why giving back, beyond giving cash, is good business

From a branding perspective, it is important for firms to live up to expectations they raise when they post their mission, vision and values on their websites. Some firms don’t put enough thought into the design of their online footprint and seem to think that actual behaviours don’t matter. However, a mission statement and a vision should not be just a web page with a bunch of empty words about company values; by building an online presence, firms can attract clients to their services and employees to their workforce.

From an HR perspective, it is important that your firm’s values align with the values of the lawyers and support staff you intend to employ, as well with those of the charity you’re looking to support. For example: if your firm specializes in family law and you espouse family values such as work-life balance, a logical choice may be to support a charity that builds homes for hard-working low-income families.

If you state on your website, in your policies and in your recruitment process that working for your firm is more than just a job and a paycheque, you can send an important signal to your associates by giving them the opportunity to contribute their labour to a charity on company time– you are true to your word and, since people are always watching, this goes a long way in building credibility. From a business perspective, supporting a charity helps you position your firm as a responsible corporate citizen. Also, encouraging your people to make a difference for a great cause will allow you to make great strides in increasing engagement and boosting morale.

The biggest win for bigger firms, where every lawyer tends to run his or her own shop and work in a silo (especially when status is linked to billable hours and personal connections to clients), having your entire staff collaborate as one unit for an entire day on contributing to an important cause can create a team spirit that you otherwise might never have achieved. And, finally, think of the visual benefits your firm can derive from its involvement with a great charity: you’ll end up with wonderful, sincere pictures for your annual report and website.

About the Authors

Barbara Elizabeth Warner is a sole practitioner, providing general counsel to charities and not for profits, with a focus on employment, labour and human rights issues.

Evert Akkerman, owner of XNL & HR Communications, is a senior HR consultant who provides advice and professional HR services to businesses, charities and not-for-profits.


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