Big lessons from a tiny library
A project team at Fanning Howey shares lessons learned from a recent pro bono endeavor
Giving back should be a tenet of every design firm’s philosophy, but firms can sometimes have trouble getting started. How do you select the right work for you? How do you get busy coworkers to participate? And how can you utilize pro bono work to further your firm’s culture?
These are questions Fanning Howey faced before volunteering to design, build, and install two tiny libraries for Fletcher Place Community Center in our hometown of Indianapolis, Indiana. It was a process of trial and error but through combined effort, patience, and perseverance, our team ended up with a wonderful experience and several valuable lessons about how to best approach pro bono projects.
Select pro bono work that furthers your firm’s mission
If giving back is a part of your firm’s mission, your pro bono work should be representative of how you’d like to change the world. Take a look at the work you do every day and ask yourself why you do it. At Fanning Howey, education is our calling; as architects, we feel compelled to design environments for learning. For us, designing tiny libraries was a unique way to spread a love of reading and learning to our local community, and to provide disadvantaged children and adults with a diverse selection of literature. Selecting pro bono work that your team is already passionate about will be met with positive energy, which will increase participation and result in a better project.
Adjust how you work
In our traditional work, we have formal contracts that delineate project deadlines, scope, and responsibilities. In pro bono work it can sometimes be difficult to coordinate availabilities, funding can dry up, and scope can turn on a dime. Be as flexible as possible with your time and process—a good designer knows being prepared for the evolution of design is a necessity for any successful project.
There are similarities between pro bono and traditional design work, too. In the case of our tiny libraries, our team held a design charrette with the children of the community center to meet, collaborate, and get their input, just as we would with traditional clients (only this time with more crayons). Since one of the libraries was to be installed in the playground area of Fletcher Place, our team sought out what the children loved about reading and books and determined how the design could relate and improve their daily experiences.
We had the idea of encouraging the children to design bookmarks for the library so that, during our charrettes, they not only contributed ideas but also created something tangible for library users. This influenced the installation of a small box on the side of each library where community members can take a handmade bookmark after visiting a library. Our team was also inspired to incorporate fun and colorful reused flooring, paint, and tile samples from our office to bring a bit of our environment into theirs.
This was most likely the first design charrette for the children of Fletcher Place. But whether your clients are children or adults, it can be challenging to work with individuals who aren’t familiar with the typical design and building process. For this, patience and communication are paramount. Understand that you may sometimes need to adjust your process, step out of your comfort zone, or in our case, occasionally dodge glitter. Our process involved open, transparent communication and collaboration with the directors, teachers, and children of Fletcher Place. We listened to their needs and considered how we could meet them in creative ways. This helped our libraries become true embodiments of the community center and representative of their mission.
Leverage pro bono work to enhance firm culture
Pro bono work provides an opportunity for your employees to work together toward a shared external goal, and to reinforce your firm’s mission statement outside of the company website. Pro bono projects are often collaborative, and employees don’t fill the same roles as in the office. Because of this, employees may work and interact with different people than they would in your typical workplace setting.
There is no better way to build new relationships and strengthen outstanding ones within your firm, all while reaffirming your values. Having a project that supports your mission statement in a tangible way helps to spark passion and create an even more authentic connection to a company’s calling.
Be a good partner, both in design and in promotion
Good partners are empathetic—they don’t stop at the “what” but rather identify the “why.” This requires listening to properly understand your client’s needs. Once these have been established, go above and beyond in delivery. Make your partner feel heard, valued, and included by incorporating their input and letting them get involved; they’re sure to want to help in any way they can.
Promotion can be a gray area when dealing with pro bono work. There is a school of thought that says we should do this work to help others and not to promote ourselves. While we agree, there are still widespread benefits to promoting your pro bono work, benefits that go beyond self-interest. For one, promoting these projects can encourage or inspire others to take on their own. Promoting your efforts can reinforce the role of “giving back” in your firm culture, and down the road could lead to more passionate and caring people joining your team.
Get started today
If you’re interested in getting involved with pro bono work but don’t think you have the means, ask for contributions and donations—you’ll be surprised by how willing people are to help. A lot can be done with donations and extra materials; for example, the exteriors of the Fletcher Place tiny libraries were created with reused wood from an architect’s old cedar fence, and all the books were donated by Fanning Howey employees.
The essence of pro bono work is that there typically isn’t much money involved—creativity is currency, which allows more opportunity for personal contributions to influence the project. Even with limited budget or scope, you can always give back. No matter how tiny your library, passion and creativity can turn small contributions into a lasting impact.
Rick Hahn is a project manager at Fanning Howey, a national leader in the planning and design of learning environments. Sean Costello is an architectural graduate, and Luke Bell is a marketing communications specialist at Fanning Howey.
Karen O. Courtney, AIA