Pro bono projects inspire workers, help nonprofits; Corporations don 'good citizen' hats during tough times, Chicago Tribune, On The Job

For years, Family Focus knew its Evanston center needed an elevator to be compliant with the Americans With Disabilities Act, but the necessary funds eluded the nonprofit.

That is until OWP/P - Cannon Design stepped in, offering to provide architectural design services at no cost. Then MB Financial Bank provided a construction loan and Jones Day offered pro bono legal services, making the project doable, said Caterina Varvaro, interim executive director at Family Focus.

When the new elevator was unveiled at a ribbon-cutting event at the end of June, Family Focus staffers weren't the only ones celebrating. The project inspired the architect who created the design and spent 18 months seeing it implemented.

"It was uplifting, but also humbling to see that direct of a response to your efforts," said Michael Zanco, architect at OWP/P - Cannon Design. "You are dealing directly with the people who need your work the most," he said.

At a time when many charities are feeling the economy's squeeze, corporations are donning "good citizen" hats and performing pro bono projects that will have a lasting impact, experts said.

And a side benefit: Corporate employees participating in the pro bono work generally come away feeling better about their jobs and employers.

"The caring (culture) permeates the employees on the inside and the outside," said Gaye van den Hombergh, president of Winning Workplaces, an Evanston nonprofit that helps small and midsize organizations create better workplaces.

In some cases, employers are increasing the amount of pro bono work they provide because employees are demanding they do so, van den Hombergh said.

"It's more than a trend," she said, adding that it shows a two-way relationship between the employer and employee. "It builds that bond, and that builds loyalty."

The Family Focus elevator project, and many others of a similar vein, emerged from OWP/P - Cannon Design's 2-year-old Open Hand Studio, which enables the company's 1,000 workers to spend time on community-building projects, said John Syvertsen, principal.

"It grew out of a conversation we had with the subject of engagement," he said.

By providing opportunities beyond the firm's paid projects, OWP/P believed staff capabilities would expand and the community would benefit, Syvertsen said. "It will improve people's lives," he said.

OWP/P, a unit of the larger corporation, has pledged to donate 1 percent of its labor, or about 2,000 hours annually, to pro bono and volunteer projects regardless of how busy it gets, Syvertsen said. He's hoping the pro bono work catches on firmwide.

For other companies, the challenging economy provides a reason to help charities and keep their employees working.

Adjustable Forms Inc., a Lombard concrete construction firm that is down to about 23 workers from about 450 a year ago, provided more than $500,000 in pro bono labor to about a dozen projects between March and June.

Company President Jim Lindquist launched the "Give Something Back" program to help the community and retain a core group of supervisors because he was confident he would need them once the economy came back.

"I wanted to send a signal about how important they were to this organization and how I value them in the good days and the tough times," Lindquist said.

He first pledged $250,000 in salary and benefits, then doubled that amount.

Businesses providing pro bono services would deduct the dollars they spend on wages and benefits as a typical business expense, said Bill Danielson, tax director of Plante & Moran's Northwest Chicago office in Elgin. In Adjustable Forms' case, Lindquist is taking the $500,000 as a loss.

"It's just a dollar-for-dollar loss," he said. "It wasn't done on the tax basis. It was done for a need and helping some longtime employees," he said.

The supervisors got more than a paycheck from their experiences. Among other projects, they helped build a home for a veteran affiliated with Homes for Our Troops in Plainfield, installed brick sidewalks and handicap ramps at Lambs Farm in Libertyville, and constructed a greenhouse at the Academy for Global Citizenship school in Chicago.

"It was kind of fulfilling knowing we were giving out" services, said Mike Hrnciar, field superintendent at Adjustable Forms.

But the real payback was the appreciation shown by the charities. At several Clearbrook facilities for the developmentally disabled, the workers installed new tile work.

"To see the transformation and how the residents felt about it made us feel good as well," Hrnciar said.