The prospect of working without significant remuneration might initially seem unattractive, but it’s well worth considering the considerable benefits pro bono roles can bring.
For those embarking on a portfolio career, taking a pro bono role can be an excellent starting point to building an impressive and varied range of NED and advisory roles. While sector specific knowledge is valued by many boards and businesses, pro bono roles can offer the opportunity to gain fresh perspectives, skills and knowledge and maximise your potential for future appointments. The positives of working on a pro bono basis with startup businesses are myriad.
The first step on the ladder
A pro bono role can be an excellent way to get your foot in the door if you’ve never previously held a NED or advisory position. Even if you had a glittering executive or c-suite career, getting onto your first board can be tough, and the chances of your first NED or advisory role being substantially remunerated is slim to none. Startups - much like charities and not-for-profits - are much more likely to take on aspiring portfolio professionals with no direct experience of NED or advisory work. They understand the value in having a professional who is willing to give their time, expertise and experience for free, in return for the chance to accelerate their own professional and personal development. Once you have your first role under your belt, you will be a much more attractive proposition to other recruiting organisations, boards and founders and will be able to build out your portfolio of roles.
It may sound simplistic, but doing good feels good.
Central to altruism is empathy but, as an experienced professional who has enjoyed career success, it can sometimes be easy to forget that nearly everyone who has excelled on their professional journeys has had help along the way. By giving back to founders at the start of their own growth journeys or helping organisations who rely on dedicated volunteers, you will be helping to give someone else the kind of support you yourself benefited from in the past. The small business world, and the startup ecosystem in particular, is based on the ideals of support and reciprocity, so an altruistic approach will ensure you in-step with others within the space.
Pick your passion
The beauty of pro bono is that you are far less likely to be tempted to take a role that isn’t a good fit, or just as importantly, not really of interest to you. Remunerated roles can be appealing purely because they pay and you can end up overlooking aspects of the role that you might find unappealing which might ultimately make the role into a chore. Many NEDs and advisors also reason that a part time role can be tolerated, as long as the cash is coming in.
With pro bono roles you can - and should - be as picky as possible. Why would you give your time, experience and skills to an organisation whose aims, values and interests don’t tally with your own? By working on something you are invested in and excited by, you will be able to approach the role with enthusiasm and application, and maximise the returns for you.
Lay the foundations of valuable relationships
Advisors who start out with early-stage startups should work hard to create relationships of trust with founders and SLTs and add maximum value in their role, and working on a pro bono basis will certainly set you off on the right foot. What’s more, if you impress the decision makers within the organisation at the start of their journey, there is a good chance that they will want to retain you on a more permanent basis once their business and resources grow. Pro bono roles can often turn into paid NED or advisory roles further down the line.
Broaden your knowledge & skills
Many startups are crying out for the experience and expertise of specialist senior professional but have little-to-no budget to pay for it. While it might seem alien to offer your valuable input for free, the amount you will learn from working in a dynamic startup makes it more than worthwhile. The startup world moves at pace and you will probably find yourself tackling areas and issues within the business that you have no experience in - and weren’t initially brought on to do. Within reason, you should take on the challenges thrown your way,
and demonstrate your versatility by engaging with areas not in your primary experience. You will become a much more valuable portfolio professional and have a broader skillset than you might acquire in a paid role.
Build your network
People who see the value of pro bono roles come from all walks of life and professions, and the make-up of unremunerated boards is often much more diverse and inclusive than ones comprising paid professionals. You will find that working alongside a varied range of other pro bono advisors or NEDs will broaden your network to take in sectors and industries you might otherwise never be able to access and often, you will be introduced to their connections and contacts which could provide fresh opportunities to work with other organisations further down the line.
Boost your CV
Experience is everything, as we’ve already said, and that really comes to the fore on your CV. Pro bono roles will cast you in an incredibly positive light to recruiting businesses, as they will not only be able to see that you’ve been at the coal face of a demanding and varied role, but that you also have the dedication and application to work with organisations without any direct benefit to yourself. Embrace the opportunity to step outside of your area of expertise while in pro bono roles and you will ensure you can showcase your adaptability and work ethic when applying for roles that are remunerated.