Pro-Bono work in a slow economy: View it as an asset

What happens to pro-bono work when the economy sags? For forward-thinking firms, often the answer is, it increases. Before you react to a business slow down by laying off staff, consider the benefits of redirecting some of your workforce into pro-bono... and the cost of cutting back.

It's no secret that the cost of turnover is high. A conservative estimate puts the cost to replace an individual at about 25 percent of his or her salary, while others say it is considerably higher. The Department of Labor turnover worksheet will help you calculate the true cost, which includes figures for the salary of the direct supervisor, and the supervisor's supervisor, not to mention corporate office staff pay.

Plus, business leaders have learned that when commerce picks up again, a pared down staff will have a hard time keeping up with demand, which can end up costing clients. While it's smart to trim expenses and cut the fat, be careful not to trim in ways that will damage morale, productivity, operational effectiveness, and long-term viability. And if promoting client loyalty is a goal, imagine how damaging it could be to tell returning clients that their trusted advisor was the victim of a lack-of-work layoff.

Eventually the economy will rebound and trying to find and hire talent could negate whatever savings your firm accomplished by letting go of staff.

Instead of cutting staff, consider what one professional service firm did after the terrorist attacks of 9/11. With business dampened, they put their excess capacity to work doing additional pro-bono projects. They created public-interest rotation programs/externships, and during the business downturn, they sent their associates as well as some of their senior managers to work on public interest projects. Senior associates were kept busy mentoring and supervising newer staff members, or coming up with new pro-bono initiatives. CPA firms that are facing business doldrums can do the same.

Here are just a few of the benefits possible when firms skip the layoffs and redirect their excess capacity into the community.

  • Volunteer work is an excellent source of professional development. Your junior staff gain practice interacting with the public, hone their skills, and get feedback from the people they serve as well as mentoring from seasoned staff.
  • Sixty-two percent of respondents to a survey by Deloitte & Touche USA said they prefer to work for employers that allow them to do volunteer work on the job. So for senior staff as well as recent graduates, giving them a chance to do pro-bono work is a great retention tool.
  • In the same way, when it is time to start hiring new blood, your pro-bono involvement will be an attractive recruiting tool that will set you apart from competitors.
  • And of course, volunteerism raises your firm's visibility and enhances its image as a socially responsible enterprise within the community.

Nobody understands better than accountants do, that a dollar isn't always a dollar. Cut one dollar of the wrong expense, like valued staff, and it could cost you far more than you save. Give a dollar in pro-bono services and the benefits that return to your firm may be greatly multiplied.

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