Fourth Survey of Pro Bono Service by U.S. Architecture and Design Firms

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As the economy continues to recover slowly, architects and designers are increasingly putting their skills to work for the public good, according to a survey of nearly 1000 firms by the national nonprofit Public Architecture in collaboration with researchers from Harvard Business School.

Designers report the benefits of doing pro bono work from a business perspective. It’s no longer a question of just giving back. Firms are now demanding more from their pro bono work.

Since 2005, four surveys have queried architecture and design firms that have pledged a minimum of 1 percent of their billable hours to pro bono service through “The 1%” program of Public Architecture.

“This latest survey underscores the evolution of pro bono service in the design profession. Project expectations are rising; leadership buy-in is increasing; and pro bono is becoming a fundamental part of practice,” states John Peterson, founder and president of Public Architecture.

The firms surveyed range from single-person offices to many of the largest firms, such as Cannon Design, Gensler, and HOK. The survey was sent to 906 firms participating in The 1%, 35 percent of which responded. To date, Public Architecture has recruited over 1100 firms to The 1% program.

“Beyond the satisfaction that comes from working on projects that align with their firm’s values, designers report the benefits of doing pro bono work from a business perspective,” said Amy Ress, The 1% Program Manager. “It’s no longer a question of just giving back. Firms are now demanding more from their pro bono work—whether to expand to new markets, to build community relations, or serve in staff development.”

In an effort to measure trends, the survey included nearly similar questions to the versions that Public Architecture administered in the previous two years.

Key Findings:

  •     Firms set higher expectations for pro bono projects; the importance of the variables in selecting pro bono projects grows across the board.
  •     More than one-third of firm respondents devote 5 percent or more of their time to pro bono service over the past year; 14 percent of firms contribute more than 10 percent of their time to pro bono.
  •     The three most important variables in selecting pro bono projects, in order of importance, are social relevance, design opportunity, and capacity to further the client’s mission.
  •     Community impact and better project opportunities are the biggest factors that contribute to firms’ pro bono work.
  •     Financial constraints and available staff time are the greatest obstacles to engaging in more pro bono work, while decision-maker buy-in and employee interest became much less of a limiting factor since the last survey in 2009.
  •     The majority of pro bono work that firms took on came from existing clients, followed closely by firms’ soliciting nonprofits outside The 1% matching service.
  •     Arts and culture are the most desirable nonprofit service areas followed by civic/public space, which nearly tied with environmental/sustainability work.

Over 200 respondents described the pro bono projects undertaken by their firms in 2010 and 2011. Services provided ranged from feasibility studies to facilities renovations and new construction. To date, The 1%’s firms collectively contribute an average of over $42M in services annually and are touching the lives of countless people in need.

Perkins+Will Seattle contributed design services to improve a neglected neighborhood park. “We saw a need and acted upon it through engagement with neighborhood members and city officials.” Unabridged Architecture in Bay St Louis, Miss. saved an historic structure from demolition. With their help, the Bay St Louis Little Theatre is now an award-winning community gathering place.

Public Architecture was pleased to launch two new partnerships in 2012—with the American Institute of Architects and the American Society of Interior Designers—each sharing the goal to expand the number of participating designers and grow the program’s impact in underserved communities. The 1% supports every designer and architect to make pro bono service an integral part of practice.


About Public Architecture
Public Architecture is a national 501(c)(3) nonprofit based in San Francisco. It engages architecture firms, nonprofits, and manufacturers to commit to design for the public good through its nationally recognized 1% program; it acts to bring about positive community change through public-interest design projects; and it shares the potential of design to change the world through advocacy and outreach.

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Barbara Franzoia
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