Diary of a Social Venture Start-up: Pro Bono Support

As we've discussed, social entrepreneurship is rife with challenges. Even if you've managed to avoid most of the early mistakes, you're bound...

As we've discussed, social entrepreneurship is rife with challenges. Even if you've managed to avoid most of the early mistakes, you're bound to hit some hurdles. As with any business, many of them will revolve around money. You'll often need things (lawyers, accountants, designers, consultants), all of which will cost you. So, how can you obtain the services you need while still managing your (presumably) small budget? At this point, it's time to introduce you to two of the nicest words in the English language: pro bono. Okay, so it's actually Latin. But you know what I mean.

You'll often hear from entrepreneurs that starting a business is a difficult and expensive process. And while I can't tell you that either of these things is untrue, if you know where to look, you'll find a bunch of people willing to offer their help-for free.

One of the most useful of these organizations is SCORE. With nearly 400 chapters nationwide, SCORE offers free and confidential advice to small businesses. One of SCORE's major strengths is that they don't believe in cookie-cutter solutions; your interactions will be tailored to your organization's goals and challenges. You'll be able to find a counselor whose experience matches up with your interests, and take advantage of their expertise through face-to-face and online counseling.

Fellowships are also a wonderful door-opener to pro bono assistance and network-building. Echoing Green, Ashoka, Acumen Fund, and StartingBloc all have respected fellowship programs. And while each fellowship is different, they often provide partial funding, advice, technical assistance, and opportunities for further support from other organizations.

One of those organizations is the Lex Mundi Pro Bono Foundation, which helps match social entrepreneurs with needed legal help. While Lex Mundi only accepts pro bono clients who have been vetted through a partner organization, their list of these collaborators is fairly extensive. I cannot stress how beneficial free legal help is. Need help incorporating or applying for 501(c)3 status? You'll need a lawyer. Have intellectual property you want to protect? You'll need a lawyer. Want to start drawing up contracts for potential employees or investors? You get the idea.

Pro bono support is also available in more creative areas. For instance, IDEO, a global design consultancy (and GOOD collaborator), occasionally hosts social impact labs. Socially focused organizations are invited to attend one-hour sessions with the firm's designers to help solve their business problems. According to Elizabeth Johansen in IDEO's Boston office, "the hour can be spent looking at anything from really meaty technical challenges like designing an irrigation system to something more intangible like helping to create a movement around leadership development." This brainstorming can take any number of forms. Johansen explains, "We've dedicated the time to things like design reviews, where someone has a design, but they want experts to pick it apart and ask questions."

One important note: There is occasionally some truth to the notion of "you get what you pay for." However, I'd make the case that this applies with less-respected organizations than those mentioned above. If your cousin knows a guy who knows a guy who can totally hook you up with an awesome accountant for free, you might want to think twice. If, however, some of the world's leading authorities in their respective fields are volunteering their skills, just say thank you.

The Takeaway: People want to help you. For free. With a little effort, you might find a way to expand your business while avoiding emptying your wallet by taking advantage of pro bono support-a wonderful term in any language.

Screenshot via (left) Wikimedia Commons (right)

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