July 10, 2012

Pro Bono: For the Public Good

On April 25th  in Los Angeles, Teknion held an engaging discussion on pro bono design work with members of the local design community and special guests John Peterson of Public Architecture and Rob Forbes, founder of Design Within Reach and PUBLIC Bikes.  The next day, a lunch with Peterson and industry thought leaders took the conversation one step further.

The participants included:

  • David Fridlund of Wirt Design
  • Jim Klawiter and Suzanne Molina of Klawiter
  • Scott Johnson of Wolcott
  • Michelle Ives of AECOM
  • Julie Eizenberg and Krissy Smith of Koning Eizenberg
  • Mitch Sawasy of SSPA
  • Susan Coddington of CDG
  • Susanne Lloyd Simmons of ICCI Design
  • Charrisse Johnston of Gensler
  • Pamela Saxton, Kay Sargent, Karen Smurthwaite and Kelsey Sebastian attended on behalf of Teknion

Peterson’s Public Architecture inspires the architecture and design community to provide pro bono design work to non-profits.  Through its innovative 1% program, participating firms commit 1% of their time to projects such as health centers, libraries, schools and social service agencies in low-income communities nation-wide.

Charrisse Johnston of Gensler noted that, because young designers want to be involved in making a difference, a firm’s position on social responsibility is becoming more critical.

However, convincing firm leadership to do pro bono can be a challenge.  The issue isn’t so much about will, as it is about the ‘way’ of doing the work.  Not only can it take time away from billable work, which in an economically challenging time can be a significant concern, but there are issues of liability as well.

Peterson pointed out that insurance companies assess their rates based on billable time, and since pro bono work isn’t billable, it doesn’t factor into the equation, or at least not yet. That could mean that insurance for pro bono work is free.

There’s also the issue of where the 1% is coming from.  Some firms allow their staff to use company time, while others ask employees to donate their own personal time on top of regular work hours.

Mitch Sawasy, of SPAA, noted that in the A&D world there is ‘billable time,’ the amount actually billed, and ‘compensated time,’ general office and business development–which often aren’t.  There is no pre-set method and Public Architecture operates on the honor system when it comes to confirming that firms are actually donating the 1%.

The assumption is that those signing up are donating 1% of a 40-hour workweek, or the equivalent of less than half an hour a week, or 20 hours a year.  Although Jim Klawiter of Klawiter pointed out the projects don’t really work that way.  They hit in chunks of time and managing them within the normal business cycle without impacting other projects or the bottom line is key.

The impact to smaller firms can be difficult, but the benefit is realizing the positive impact design can make.  The commitment of 1% is small when you factor that it represents about 20 hours per year per person.   So if all 240,000 architecture professionals in the U.S. signed up for the 1% program, it would be equal to a 10,000-person firm working full time.

Many firms elect to charge a reduced rate or partial fees for pro bono work.  The philosophy behind this approach is that giving away a service de-values it and without some skin in the game by all parties, the services aren’t as appreciated.  Others choose to track the hours but not charge.  There is no pre-set method that needs to be followed, but the discussion does raise the issue of how do we bring design services to the public and non-profits on a sustainable level, where all parties benefit?  Julie Eisenberg of Koning Eizenberg suggested that charging a reduced rate for services not only brings quality design to those under-served by the design community today, but can be a viable business model for A&D firms as well.

Considering that 10 percent of business is conducted by non-profits, there is a huge opportunity for design firms to expand their client base.  Non-profit work can often be some of the most creatively stimulating, and these organizations typically pay faster than most corporations.  Upwards of 65 percent of services provided through the Public Architecture program are interiors and the potential to elevate the power of interior designers and their unique talent to design spaces to be human-centric not only benefits the public but the profession.

Design is not a luxury; it is a powerful tool that helps to solve public problems.  Designers are problem solvers, and the active energy and insights they bring to situations can often open the doors to new possibilities.  An example is the suggestion to place clinics in fire stations to provide much-needed, accessible health care for the public, and redirect the overflow in emergency rooms for non-emergency procedures.

Peterson not only sees benefit to the community, he also sees numerous benefits to the firms that participate in Public Architecture as well.  Pro bono projects can help enhance morale, bring in new work, open new sectors, provide leadership training and serve as great PR.  But the participants in the discussion also noted something else.  Scott Johnson of Wolcott stated it best when he described how a client and those they serve were moved to tears during the dedication of the space Wolcott had designed for them.  Scott spoke of the pride and the joy they all felt in realizing the true power of design.

When Teknion first became engaged with Public Architecture’s 1% program, 500 firms were signed up.  Today, this is close to 1,000, with new firms committing daily.   More and more we see the impact of giving back, and the difference that can be made when the design community is engaged in corporate responsibility initiatives.

Teknion is proud to be a leading sponsor of Public Architecture and the 1% program.  Our entire team looks forward to continuing the conversation about the power of design and pledge our continued support and commitment to Public Architecture.  To read more about these and other pro brono design projects, visit theonepercent.orgPro bono for the public good

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