Matthew A. Karmel is an environmental lawyer at Riker Danzig in Morristown, New Jersey. He advises clients on sustainability, waste management, and renewable energy, as well as traditional environmental compliance and litigation. He was recently recognized on the Waste360 40 under 40 list for his contributions to food-waste recycling, composting, and environmental justice.
A few years ago, I started providing pro bono legal assistance to a nonprofit in New Jersey that was helping community gardens expand their composting operations without prohibitively expensive permits. In order to change state regulations, I tapped my network to arrange meetings with local residents and elected officials who could provide support. I picked my way through complicated and overlapping statutes governing waste management, and got a crash course in advocating for environmental policy. I developed strong relationships with government regulators, industry professionals, and journalists. Even though I wasn’t paid for my efforts, I felt happier and more satisfied with my work than ever, and it led to more professional success.
I put a lot of effort into finding and supporting climate-related pro bono projects. Many green organizations need help from experienced professionals like me, yet just 3 percent of volunteer hours from people in all industries in 2015 went toward care of the environment and animals, according to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics. It seems no better among lawyers: A 2020 analysis of the industry found that corporate legal departments direct as little as 2 percent of their pro bono support to environmental law. These numbers aren’t definitive, but it’s fair to say a larger proportion of professional time could be donated to green causes.
“Pro bono” is an abbreviated form of the Latin phrase pro bono public, meaning “for the public good.” It refers to services rendered free of charge. It’s not just for lawyers: Engineers, software developers, marketing gurus, or anyone else with a specific skill can offer such help.
From my perspective, the most significant barrier isn’t finding the time (though time is certainly a consideration) but finding the work. I had to hit the pavement to find the community gardens project. But with so many problems — and 65 percent of Americans “worried about global warming” — it should be easier for professionals to help.
How do we remedy this? For one, companies can incentivize pro bono work. Law firms generally require attorneys to meet minimum working hour requirements. But my firm and many others allow them to count a certain number of donated hours toward the tally. It works somewhat like paid time off for volunteering, a perk 26 percent of employers offer, according to a 2019 report from the Society for Human Resource Management. Earning credit for the time and expertise I contribute to environmental organizations helps me do more charitable work and feel more comfortable balancing my responsibilities. Of course, not everyone enjoys this benefit. But even the smallest contribution helps, and my experience has shown the benefits of chipping in wherever possible is well worth the time.
Employers could help employees find worthy projects by identifying nonprofits that align with company interests. Such efforts aren’t just good for the environment, they help build a better workforce. The benefits of doing pro bono work are expansive and include personal fulfillment, skill development, networking opportunities, improved company morale and organizational reputation, meeting with people outside your social circle, and, of course, the good feeling that comes with helping to make a better world.
Everyone has a skill they can share. You might be afraid to contribute if you aren’t an expert, but nobody is going to blame you for learning on the job while supporting an environmental cause. And learning a new skill is a great reason to do more pro bono work.
Here are a few ideas to help you find a problem your skill set can solve:
- I am a huge proponent for using pro bono to explore new career opportunities, and this belief is embedded in the DNA of Climate Fellows, which offers short- and long-term opportunities to work with U.S. climate nonprofits and, maybe, make a career move.
- If you’re an attorney, try Green Pro Bono, Lawyers for a Sustainable Economy, or The Environmental Law Institute’s Pro Bono Clearinghouse for a range of projects. For example, you might help a local community form a nonprofit to deal with tainted drinking water, or appear in front of the local zoning board to support siting a community solar project.
- If you have marketing, HR, technology, or planning skills, try Taproot Foundation; opportunities there range from one-hour consultations to small pro bono engagements and speed-consulting events.
- If you’re in Massachusetts, Alternatives for Community and Environment is focused on eradicating environmental racism and classism, and is looking for volunteer attorneys, environmental consultants, and public health professionals to build power in marginalized communities. Through its Environmental Justice Campaign, New York Lawyers for the Public Interest partners with community-based organizations, advocacy groups, and residents to launch litigation and shape policy relating to environmental justice.
- In California, the Seed Consulting Group pairs teams of professional consultants for a 10-week engagement with organizations in L.A., Orange County, San Diego, and San Francisco.
- You might also try more general organizations like Pro Bono Net (for lawyers only) or VolunteerMatch and Catchafire, and sort opportunities by cause.
- Sometimes the best approach is to reach out to an individual organization and discuss your interests and their needs. It may take a few conversations to decide if you match. Don’t be discouraged if you don’t make an immediate connection; needs change, and just being available can make the difference.
- Consider also joining the board of a green organization. Doing so is a significant commitment, but you’ll have greater impact, with the added benefit of holding an ongoing leadership position within an organization. BoardSource or boardnetUSA post opportunities, but in my experience the best approach is to go out into your community and find organizations that are doing work that you believe in.
The planet needs professional help. Let’s give all we can.
The views expressed here reflect those of the author.
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