Mike Ashley

After Hurricane Sandy struck in 2012, New York architect Andrew Franz, AIA, began collaborating with Architecture for Humanity on a series of charrettes for PS 329, a school that was partially damaged in the storm. His eponymous firm has since expanded its pro bono work for other clients, such as the Union Settlement Association, a nonprofit based in East Harlem, to design classrooms and after-school facilities. "[Pro bono work] requires patience, but whatever time it costs the firm, it pays dividends," Franz says. "It infuses this sense of pride and accomplishment.”

John McNulty, founding principal at Alameda, Calif.–based MBH Architects, says the timing and target for pro bono work have to be right. “When you start a business, maybe you can’t easily spend a lot of time [doing pro bono design],” he says. “You’re trying to scrape by and develop a reputation. When you get a little wind behind your sails and a little credibility in the marketplace, you begin to understand, ‘I didn’t get here on my own. It took a lot of help to make me successful. How can I use the skills I have to help somebody out?’ ” McNulty recalls once interviewing to provide paid architectural services for the Good Tidings Foundation, a local charity that supports youth through the arts, athletics, and education. After the interview, he sat in his car thinking for a few minutes before returning to the client’s office and offering to work for free. “I just said to myself, ‘This is a perfect job for us,’ ’’ he recalls.

“[Pro bono work] requires patience, but whatever time it costs the firm, it pays dividends.” —Andrew Franz, AIA, founding principal, Andrew Franz Architect

A key to MBH’s success in pro bono work is guided by staff members’ passions, he says, but firms should not expect employees to donate their time off the clock. “You build the pro bono work in to your hourly rates," he says. "We already have that money allocated. It becomes part of the recipe." The firm treats these projects just like billable work. If MBH bills for 10 percent of the project's overall cost, for example, that same percentage would still be recorded into the books as a fee even if it is pro bono work and the firm doesn’t actually bill the client. “It has all the attributes of a real project, because it is a real project," he says.

Some firms have gone a step further by creating their own nonprofit arms. Washington, D.C., firm Inscape Publico comprises two entities: a for-profit architecture firm (Inscape Studio) and a nonprofit (Publico) that offers pro-bono design services to other nonprofits. Although Publico is the entity that works with charitable clients, all design work is subcontracted to Inscape Studio at a reduced rate, allowing Publico to avoid paying for liability insurance, administrative staff, and other typical overhead.

Last year, Publico provided more than 2,300 hours of pro bono work, which founder and executive director Greg Kearley, AIA, says is mainly schematic design. “If you can just advance the ball for people a bit, it makes a huge difference,” he says. “We produce the vision, which they can leverage to do the fundraising necessary to move into the next stage of pre-construction, which is bringing in the engineers and consultants, and completing the construction documents." Clients are not obligated to use Inscape Studio for the next phases of the project, he says, "but they typically do because we’ve built a relationship and we’re very competitive with our pricing."

To get started in pro bono design, it’s helpful to learn about the broader nonprofit ecosystem. Before founding Inscape Publico, Kearley engaged with nonprofits by participating on a number of community boards, where he learned how to launch a capital campaign, he says. “You have to understand how the parts go together.”

One option for architects who want to donate their time is Public Architecture’s 1+ program (previously called The 1% Program), which has institutionalized the idea of incorporating pro bono design services into practice by mapping out how to contribute (20 hours per year per person) and connecting firms with nonprofits. To help architects formalize agreements with clients, the AIA also provides resources, such as contract documents that designate the scope of the project and the maximum number of hours needed for each pro bono service.