May 8, 2009

Pro Bono on the Rise
Billings may be down, but architects are still hard at work building community

by Heather Livingston
Contributing Editor

How do you . . . strengthen your firm during a recession?

Summary: If there is a silver lining to this economic cloud we’re experiencing, it may well be that many architects are using the recession to refocus their efforts on community building. Perhaps it’s the profession’s characteristic can-do attitude in the face of declining work or its fervent community spirit at play, but there’s no denying that pro bono design work is on the rise.

John Cary, Assoc. AIA, is the executive director of Public Architecture, one program of which is the 1%, which connects nonprofit organizations in need of design assistance with architecture and design firms willing to donate one percent of their billable hours to pro bono design efforts. According to Cary, membership in the 1% is increasing at a rate approximately 50 percent higher than at this time last year. Between January and March, 55 design firms and 29 nonprofits signed on to the program, with another two dozen or so joining in April.

“We think that there’s quite a bit of capacity right now within these firms,” reports Cary. “Some of them are really trying to pass the time and keep staff as long as possible. Some firms are doing it, I think, with business in mind. They see this as a way to enter new markets.” Cary additionally notes that employee retention and, in better times, recruitment also drive a lot of pro bono design work.

Building expertise
Mike McCall, AIA, president of the 50-person McCall Design Group, reveals that getting into new markets is a key reason that his firm does pro bono. An early signer of the 1%, McCall says that pro bono work allows them to gain new expertise and keep the staff excited about the firm’s work.

The San Francisco firm currently is working on two pro bono community projects and devoting a greater percentage of time to that work than in the recent past because of the decrease in inquiries. When asked why the firm joined the 1%, McCall explained, “We take our pro bono work very seriously, but it’s not from a PR or marketing point of view—or really even completely about community involvement. Community involvement is important to the firm, and this is just one aspect of it, but it’s a way to work with a whole different group of people and with different projects than we’re normally working for. Especially when we’re busy, we really like to do it because it allows us to branch out and diversify and it becomes more about learning in some ways than giving back.”

A boon for all
AIA Florida and the AIA California Council (AIACC) both agree that pro bono work can be especially beneficial to firms looking to get into new markets. AIACC Director of Member & Component Resources Nicki Dennis Stephens, Hon. AIACC, conveyed that she’s aware of two firms in Los Angeles that are expanding their practices into building types that wouldn’t have been readily accessible to them during the recent building boom. Because the architecture firms are offering their services free, both they and the community organizations they assist benefit nicely from the experience.

The 1%‘s Cary offers an example from the Bay Area. “We’ve got a midsize firm here that did primarily retail for Gap and Bath & Body Works and Victoria’s Secret and so on and the retail market collapsed,” he says. “This firm had not much more to show for itself besides the retail work and so they began working with Good Will Industries to try to bring their design services to bear on that kind of a retailer, but they also have taken on an inner city school project and a nonprofit museum project. These are both projects that they identified and initiated that would not otherwise have ever benefited from the services of a firm, so we’re very supportive of the way they’ve gone about it.”

For Christopher Alley, AIA, a sole practitioner in Winooski, VT., pro bono work is solely about giving back to his community, though it does reap the benefit of exposure. His firm, Post Decadent, officially joined the 1% in February. Alley says that though he signed onto the 1% because he has more time on his hands now and wants to keep busy, community building was the impetus for formalizing a long-standing commitment. “I find that anything we do involved in giving back to the community and getting people excited about architecture and architects is good for me in the long run,” he believes.

Concludes AIA Florida Communications and Public Relations Manager Monica McDonald: “Although economically the numbers are down, our philanthropic spirit is up.”

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For more information on The One Percent, visit

An interesting point: according to the 2006 AIA Firm Survey, 63 percent of AIA member firms provided pro bono work during the boom-time in 2005.