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The 1 Percent: How We've Engaged 15,000 Designers to Donate Their Services

The 1% pro bono design program from Public Architecture has engaged 15,000 architects and designers for good.

We live at a time when there is growing desire to take an active role in social change. Beyond simple volunteering, pro bono service—donating professional services for which a nonprofit would otherwise have to pay—is a productive way to engage your expertise to improve the scale, sustainability, and impact of nonprofits in our communities. It is a subset of skilled volunteering that gives nonprofits access to the skills and experience they need to increase their capabilities and better serve their mission.

I founded Public Architecture in response to the wish of myself and others in my private architectural practice to do meaningful work at work. We had a vision: empowering designers to not only conceive of solutions on behalf of clients but to identify and address challenges on behalf of larger communities. Yet we soon realized that, unlike the legal and medical professions, the design community then had yet to establish industry-wide practices like pro bono to serve and impact those most in need. So, in what sometimes seems like a moment of naïve enthusiasm, I created Public Architecture in attempt to address this unmet opportunity.
Over the past ten years, Public Architecture has begun to create a world where designers can better serve the public good through sustainable, scalable practices. Our main agent for fulfilling this vision is "The 1%" pro bono design program, in addition to our own design initiatives and by acting as a catalyst for public discourse through education and advocacy. The 1% operates as an online platform where design firms across the nation pledge a minimum of 1 percent of their annual billable hours to pro bono service and match with nonprofits who have posted their design needs on the website. The program also provides resources to designers and nonprofits that address best practices for working on pro bono projects together. Today, The 1% includes more than 1100 firms who have committed at least 1 percent; more than 15,000 designers now provide a combined $42 million dollars’ worth of design services each year.
At this time participation in The 1% is limited to designers of the built environment and US-based nonprofits. Visit to sign up. If you do not fit the profile of The 1%, but want to make a commitment to pro bono service, there are options for you. For individuals, the Taproot Foundation is a great place to start; for small and large businesses alike, try A Billion + Change.
I sometimes describe Public Architecture as a hundred year organization; in reality, longevity only hints at the scope of what we seek to achieve. We know that the questions we need to answer will change and evolve over time as this practice continues to take hold. Already, we have begun to move from “How can we get designers to make pro bono a part of their practice?” to “How can we help designers be more effective change agents in underserved communities?” Yet the basic principles of our work remain the same. Quality, scale, accessibility, sustainability—these values are core to what we do and to our vision for all communities across the nation.
Want to convince your boss to add a pro bono program? Click here for a letter Public Architecture's written to help make the case that pro bono work is not only the right thing to do, but good for business. Add committing 1 percent of your own time to service to your to-do list here.\n
John Peterson is founder and president of Public Architecture, and serves as its design director, chief spokesperson and strategist.\n
GOOD HQ is challenging the community to commit to service throughout 2013. Go here to pledge 1 percent of your time—that’s 20 hours—being part of the solution this year.\n
Image courtesy of Public Architecture.\n

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