Pro Bono Service Recognition Programs: Best Practices and Common Pitfalls

“To live is to choose. But to choose well, you must know who you are and what you stand for, where you want to go and why you want to get there.” —Kofi Annan

Every October, the ABA Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service invites members of the legal community to join in the National Celebration of Pro Bono. In recognition of October as a time to recognize pro bono lawyers and the significant positive difference they make in their communities every day, it is important to understand the impact volunteer recognition has on pro bono attorney participation in pro bono programs.

In communities across the country, countless pro bono programs offer a wide variety of pro bono opportunities to lawyers. The pro bono programs that enjoy long-term success, in most cases, have figured out how to effectively recognize and show appreciation to their volunteers. When volunteers feel appreciated, they are routinely happier and more productive volunteers. However, effective volunteer programs require planning and thoughtful execution. When implementing a new recognition program, or reassessing the effectiveness of an existing one, identifying the intended goals of volunteer recognition is an important first step.

Identify Recognition Goals

To help ensure a volunteer recognition program meets the needs of a particular pro bono program, the program must first identify what it wants to accomplish with its recognition plan. Volunteer recognition plans can serve many recognition goals, including letting volunteers know they are appreciated, helping volunteers feel included in and part of a program’s success, encouraging increased volunteer participation, and education of the community about the mission and work of program. Regardless of what a program’s recognition goals might be, a pro bono program should tailor its recognition plan to meet those goals.

Best Practices for Volunteer Recognition

Volunteer recognition programs that are a good fit for one pro bono program may not be a good fit for another, even if the day-to-day operations of the two programs appear similar. The following recognition methods are used by many pro bono programs, but are not necessarily appropriate for all, and should only be implemented if appropriate to fulfill a particular program’s identified recognition goals. When considering how to recognize volunteers most effectively, always keep in mind that not all volunteers want to be publicly recognized for their volunteer contributions. It is important to recognize and show appreciation for volunteers in a way that conforms with their wishes and volunteer motivation style.

Annual Awards Ceremony: Across the country, many pro bono programs incorporate annual events that recognize the pro bono achievements of individual attorneys, groups of attorneys, or both. To determine the best model for a successful annual recognition event, consider partnering with another pro bono program, legal services provider, bar association, or other type of organization to encourage participation and increase interest. The ABA Center for Pro Bono provides sample award certificates on its website[i] and lots of other helpful information for programs considering or planning an annual awards ceremony. A well-planned annual awards ceremony is a great way to thank and honor outstanding pro bono attorneys. These types of recognition events have also proven to be successful fundraisers to support legal services programs and other access to justice initiatives.

Pro Bono Honor Rolls: Honor rolls are effective for recognizing pro bono attorneys who exceed a specific number of pro bono hours, usually in a calendar year. Honor rolls are an efficient and straightforward way to recognize pro bono volunteers. In addition to individual attorneys, many honor rolls also recognize the outstanding contributions of law firms and corporate legal departments. When implementing an honor roll, have a well-thought-out plan for promoting and educating attorneys on what they must do to be qualify for recognition.

Local Recognition Events: Pro bono programs looking for unique opportunities to recognize pro bono attorneys should consider recognition events that are crafted to the interests of pro bono attorneys in a specific region, county, city, or town. A few examples of successful local recognition events include golf outings, fishing trips, tennis matches, and similar events with local judges and bar leaders. These types of recognition events, while potentially ranging in cost from free to expensive, can have a significant positive impact on volunteer involvement.

 Keep the Momentum Going

As stated above, it is important for pro bono programs to tailor recognition opportunities to fulfill specific goals. Additionally, volunteer recognition should be an ongoing process. A common pitfall of many recognition programs is inconsistency in volunteer recognition. Once implemented, it is important to keep the recognition momentum going. Recognition programs should not be considered a “one and done” proposition. Even if a recognition program is planned and executed perfectly, inconsistent and insincere volunteer recognition can have detrimental effects on volunteer participation and morale.


Pro Bono Recognition

Pro Bono Task Force Report

Marketing Strategies For Pro Bono Opportunities

Report of the Pro Bono Task Force

Best Practices Manual for Local Pro Bono Committees

Why Recognize Volunteers?

Best Practices in Pro Bono Returns with a Focus on Client-Centered Collaboration

5 Fatal Volunteer Management Mistakes (And How to Avoid Them!)


About the Author

Robert Mathis is the State Bar of Michigan’s Justice Initiatives Counsel. Before joining SBM, Robert was a legal aid lawyer for more than 10 years.

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