Marketing is rarely talked about in graduate school. But success in building a private practice means developing skills in self-promotion, something that doesn’t come naturally to many of the people who feel called to do human-service work.
For many, trumpeting that we are the best is odious. But doing good work feels congruent with who we are. Pro bono work can be a comfortable way to both do good and introduce ourselves to our community as someone who is a good therapist.
Even more importantly, pro bono work gets us out of our offices and into our communities. When working hour to hour with one person after another our perspective about what goes on out there can get skewed. Offering our services to local organizations increases our understanding of the very real community problems that are impacting our clients.
Volunteer vs. Pro Bono Work
Although any kind of volunteer work is helpful for meeting some unmet need in your community, pro bono work is different. Volunteering is any activity where we lend our energy and heart to a community activity without expecting compensation.
Pro bono work, however, is giving away your professional services for free. Whether you are a psychologist, social worker, abuse counselor or mental health counselor, your training and experience are invaluable assets to an organization that can’t afford to hire you, even if they desperately need the help.
In addition to the very real personal benefit that comes with doing good for something you believe in, pro bono work also helps you develop professional relationships with people who may become referral sources – and who you may want to refer your clients to someday. When people get to know each other and like each other, they are more likely to call on each other for help.
Your business plan when developing a private practice should include carving out time to do pro bono work. One caution: Do make sure your professional liability insurance covers work you offer.
Consider These Options
Boards of Directors: Follow your own interests. Non-profit organizations often need professionals to serve on their boards. This service usually involves a monthly meeting, serving on a committee and helping with fund raising.
Consider local services that are congruent with the work of your practice. The board of such programs as a women’s abuse prevention program, a homeless shelter, a half-way house for people in recovery, a home for pregnant teens, or a community charitable funding organization often needs the input of a mental health professional.
Day Care Centers: Small centers are often low budget. They can’t afford a professional consultant – even when they may need one. Offer, say, an hour per month of consultation to help the staff determine how best to help a child or family when a child is having adjustment problems or is behaviorally challenging.
A friend of mine has been doing this option for years. She is clear with both the center and the families that she is not offering therapy. She is providing some parent education to parents and some basic behavior management skills to the staff.
Veterans’ Organizations: Many veterans need more support than local services can provide. Consider offering some free sessions or free workshops. The director can help you determine what would be most useful.
Parent-teacher organizations: The program committees for PTOs are often challenged to find interesting programs they can afford. If you have skills to share that would be useful to teachers and parents who are working to better understand each other and work with each other, consider offering at least a yearly talk or workshop. I’ve found that talks on discipline, homework issues, concerns about social media and conflict resolution are popular topics.
Schools: The professionals in some schools are stretched thin by the demands on their time. Consider offering some free evaluations and consultations to supplement existing services. Offer to facilitate a specialized group for kids who need it.
One therapist I know offers a group for sibs of kids with special needs. Other possibilities are a social skills group for children who are struggling with peer relationship or a coping skills group for kids with ADHD. Ask the director of student services what would be most helpful. Running such groups is an effective way to expand the services a school can offer and to get to know school personnel.
Trade Schools: Local trade schools may be delighted to receive an offer for a free workshop. Think about other service providers who are often called upon to give advice but who are ill-prepared to do so, like beauticians, bar tenders, massage therapists or personal trainers.
One of my favorite experiences was providing a workshop for young people who were in training to be beauticians. Although the local trade school was operating on a shoe string, the director understood that beauticians are often engaged in very difficult conversations with their clients. Our workshop focused on listening skills and when and how to gracefully end the conversation and refer someone to a professional.
Disaster Relief: The Disaster Response Network (DRN) is a collaborative effort between the Red Cross and the APA. It deploys psychologists to help a community after crises like a hurricane disaster, massive fire or a school shooting. Contact the psychological association in your state to learn how to sign up. You will do an important service and you will meet other professionals who may later become references when you apply for grants or other opportunities.
There is enormous personal satisfaction in doing pro bono work in our communities. A bonus is that you will meet people you probably would not have otherwise met and you will develop a place for yourself in the professional network in your community.