Thursday, February 24, 2022

how offering pro bono can help us reduce our risk of burnout

With 51% of small businesses owners experiencing burnout since the pandemic started, what should we be doing that we currently aren't to help us better look after ourselves?

In conversations like these around self-managing our personal well-being, there’s often a tacit assumption that balancing looking after ourselves means we have to somehow separate ourselves from the ‘good work’ that we strive to do (or at least, strive to get paid for!), and, in the words of Monty Python, do something completely different.

But what if doing more of what we currently do in the ‘day job’ might actually help us better look after ourselves?

I’ve been reflecting recently with other people about how I approach and ‘balance’ my pro bono work as a sole trader with the need to make sure I keep earning enough cash to keep the rent paid.

Because if we don’t get this trade off between ‘work and love’ working properly, we either find ourselves homeless (evicted after non-rent payments because we didn’t do enough  paid work in favour of our pro bono offers), overwhelmed by guilt at not doing more when we feel we should/could (not feeling able to turn people away who we know we could have helped, but couldn’t otherwise pay us), or trying to satisfy all these demands on ourselves and then seeing the ‘lights go out’.

And the way I try and get it right is through the following approaches:

  • Offering pro bono through structured volunteering programmes: that way there’s someone half keeping an eye on how much I’m doing, and trying to make sure I don’t get overloaded with requests. It also means that there’s also someone I can semi-regularly check-in with to make sure I’m also feeling ok with it all.

  • Tracking the time I spend on pro bono and monetising this: I can then compare this figure to my overall paid earnings. It’s a tidy check-sum as I’ve a target percentage in my mind as to how much I should be ‘gifting’ through my pro bono work.

  • Reflecting with others on how they’re thinking about it and their approaches (all my fellow Club members whom I’ve already been having conversations with about this - it wasn’t all one-way!)

  • And ultimately, trying to accept the truth that however superhuman we might otherwise see or wish ourselves to be, we can’t save everyone.

But I’ve also been exploring my motivations, and the benefits I get from such apparent altruistic service to others.

Whilst there’s a host of other benefits that I could wax lyrical about, something I learnt very early on while offering pro bono is that removing the payment part of the relationship with a group (or person) radically changes how I perceive the dynamic - rather than constantly reminding myself that I need to keep this project moving along in order to be able to get paid (the starting point of the client relationship), I’m instead finding that I’m coming to the project as an equal to the people involved, and much more open to learning with them as we progress. It’s easier to work at a more relaxed, natural pace, and there’s more enjoyment to be had in the time I’m spending with these people and their communities, because I’m not worried about having to ‘watch a clock’ for billing hours.

We don’t often think that the pro bono we offer is a way through which we can take better care of ourselves. I’ve found it a good tonic for refreshing my passion for what I do, having been able to immerse and indulge myself in doing it purely for the love of it, rather than as a means to an end (in this case, making sure the rent gets paid next month).