Guest Blog: “Insurmountable Opportunities”

One of the speakers at the PBI Annual Conference this year offered a quote from the classic comic strip philosopher Pogo as an apt description of the current state of pro bono, “We are confronted with insurmountable opportunities.”  One of the greatest benefits of attending the Conference for me (for the first time), was the sense of instant community I had with the people I met — bright, energetic, dedicated professionals, all faced with the same set of insurmountable opportunities.

When I signed on to attend the Conference, I wasn’t sure what I really wanted to get out of it.  I am proud of our pro bono program – we have consistently met our goals for participation, we have a variety of opportunities with varying levels of time commitment, in an array of legal areas, and have strong relationships with legal services partners and private firms.

That said, we haven’t seen many new participants sign on, and while we are doing very well, I’d love to be able to say we are knocking people’s socks off.  So I signed up to attend to see what others are up to, maybe to get some ideas to help tweak our program around the edges. I got so much more than I expected.

There is a natural cycle of renewal that individuals and organizations go through – from an energetic “go for it” phase, through “the doldrums,” marked by dissatisfaction and stagnation, to “cocooning” when we tend to withdraw and become more internally focused, and finally to a stage of “getting ready” where we make plans and prepare to take on the world with renewed excitement and energy, reentering the “go for it” phase.

As I discussed the pro bono programs of others, and was in return was asked for details of our program, I realized that perhaps without noticing I had personally slipped into a bit of a cocooning phase with our program.  I’ll admit have been mostly content to let it run on auto-pilot for a while, and had kind of decided that “good enough” is good enough.

It is hard to maintain that outlook while being exposed to new ideas and creative people.  In our session on “Recognition” one of the speakers taught an excellent lesson – even though you will probably leave somebody out (and need to apologize) don’t let that stop you from making the effort to acknowledge those you can remember.  On that principle, I am going to list some of the most exciting ideas from my experience at the Conference.  This list is in no particular order, and I am sure I’ll miss lots of good things, and is entirely personal, so please don’t be offended if your idea isn’t on the list.  The point is, if you haven’t been to the PBI Annual Conference, you are missing out on a great opportunity to find what inspires you.

  • Everybody loves to be recognized – but different people value different things.  One person’s frameable certificate is another person’s recycling.  Don’t let that stop you from trying.  Try a variety of strategies to increase your chances.
  • Beware the “toxic if-then” motivation system.  Studies have shown that material rewards can actually kill enthusiasm to do good.  A “thanks for that – here’s a small gift” works better than “If you do 30 hours of pro bono, you will earn a bonus.”
  • Don’t knock yourself out trying to get everybody on board.  Create a system that builds enthusiasm and enables maximum impact for those (nearly all of us) who are very inclined, or somewhat inclined, to do good.  Don’t worry about the small percentage of scrooges.  Absent ghostly intervention, there’s nothing you can do.
  • Enthusiasm starts at the top and grows downward.  Over and over again, panelists stressed the importance of real dedication and involvement by the GC or managing partner.  If you don’t have that in your organization, commitment to pro bono will be hard to inspire at every level.
  • Don’t despair, though – there are excellent ways to motivate your GC or managing partner.  Take a look at the research from Dr. Larry Richard on what motivates lawyers.  That should give you some ideas.  For example, lawyers are very influenced by “social proof”- we like to look to what others are doing as an indication of the standard for behavior.  I am sure the good folks at PBI or CPBO would love to provide a list of the other important and influential GC/MPs who are active in pro bono.
  • Each pro bono program is different, and each firm or company culture is different.  One size fits all doesn’t fit anybody.  Use the resources at and, or review the materials from the PBI sessions – they are packed with ideas, and some of them will resonate with you, I promise.

And finally, if you are like I was and had not yet attended PBI, you should really make plans.  You will get something out of it, even if you don’t know what that is in advance. The energy and hope that arises from a group of people this bright, this dedicated, this full of passion for the public good, is close to an irresistible force.  So — what happens when an insurmountable opportunity meets an irresistible force?  Some unbelievable achievements.

Christopher L. Wendt is Pro Bono Coordinator and Immigration Counsel for Mayo Clinic, a Signatory to the Corporate Pro Bono ChallengeSM