I recently found that the "value" of volunteer time was estimated to be around $24/hour, and that 85% of nonprofits in the U.S. rely exclusively on volunteers. That's a lot of important social impact work being done pro bono.
Now, as someone who works with a nonprofit on a pro bono basis myself, I totally understand the logic. Why would you actively seek to pay for talent that you can get for free? Every dollar spent on overhead is a dollar diverted away from programming and impact, so there had better be a really compelling ROI in order to spend money on talent (and fundraising for overhead is both challenging and controversial).
Without oversimplifying the situation to "you get what you pay for," there are compelling reasons to consider investing capital (yes, real, financial capital) in trained professionals. They should be paid for achieving projects that are either critical to the sustainability or growth of your organization or that are nuanced enough to require an expert opinion that may not necessarily align with the acumen of even your most helpful board member.
If you do have board members, volunteers, pro bono consultants, or even distant cousins that are able to successfully execute strategic projects for you for free … that is awesome [truly]. Hold on to them! Feature them in your annual report. Send them 1,000 thank you notes and hope that they will continue filing your nonprofit's 990 form, coordinating the annual report, calling donors, or writing grants for you in perpetuity. But, if you are like most of us, dealing with volunteers that also have lives, jobs, and priorities outside of our orgs., the chances are that their abilities, time, and willingness to take on projects will not always align with your organizational needs and deadlines.
And when you start from the perspective of identifying organizational needs, you no longer have to think about projects from the context of a volunteer's perspective. Hosting a gala and writing a grant are both fundraising initiatives … what if you paid a business development professional to build a customer acquisition strategy for an earned revenue line instead? What if you commissioned a consultant to create an impact assessment framework that could self-populate data into compelling templates for use in donor marketing materials? For bigger questions, like the pricing strategy of your programs or services, or expansion planning into new markets or geographies, having access to a seasoned expert in these areas mitigates risk and maximizes potential returns.
Finally, I've seen firsthand the power of having skin in the game. A fee-for-service model demands a higher level of buy-in to the project, a greater sense of accountability for the outcome, and prevents any discrepancy between your expectations and needs and the ability of the person executing the project.
Nonprofits are forced to operate in a resource-constrained environment, but reliance on pro bono services exclusively is not the right answer. As more foundations seek to fund capacity and more affordable talent options emerge, I think we'll see a trend toward increased fee-for-service solutions for nonprofits.