​Matthew Manos: ‘If we ever go below 50% pro bono, I will resign’

The story of a socially responsible company.

Photo courtesy of Matthew Manos

When asked about what brought him to social entrepreneurship Matthew Manos always tells the same story. Once, while still a teenager, Matthew met a disabled chair-bound man at a skate park. Despite his condition, this man was able to perform the craziest tricks. They started talking and soon it emerged that he was actually the founder of a non-profit dedicated to promoting extreme sports among disabled children. Inspired, Matthew decided to support the cause and offered to do the promotional stickers’ design for free. And that’s how he met his first client and received his first pro bono commission.

When establishing his own design studio  verynice, Matthew Manos made pro bono principle the backbone of his company’s corporate culture. He is today one of the most ardent proponents of the pro bono movement. This year he will serve as an expert and mentor at Strelka Institute’s online urban entrepreneurship school Vector. Strelka Magazine talked to Matthew about being unable to say ‘yes’ to everyone and how designers can use business as a medium.

— How can we make sure that social responsibility actually becomes a part of people’s mentality, and not just something we encounter by chance or do simply because it’s part of a successful PR-strategy?

— One of the biggest issues with social impact in business is that often there’s a lack of authenticity. We saw the same thing with the Go Green movement: environmental sustainability became a really popular thing and as a result everyone wanted to go on board and when everybody is on board, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re all doing a great job with it.

You’re right, I kind of happened upon this just by going to the skate park that day and meeting that client. But there’s a lesson in that actually ‒ just stay open to your surroundings and observe what’s going around in your immediate community. You don’t need to say “Oh, I’m going to be this social impact person…”. What’s important is actually keeping your eyes open to what sorts of issues might be right next to your feet and actually being open to becoming interested in those things.

— Do you think it should also be a part of school curriculum?

—Yes, I do. A lot of schools, at least in the United States, are too focused on what’s happening right on the campus and this grabs most of the students’ attention. I would say what schools can do is to actually immerse their students in the local community surrounding the school. That would help them become aware of their environment and the issues that face their community. This can be done by visiting local organizations that are doing charity work, for example. Or inviting local business owners to come in and speak about their work, and open up those doors to the world outside of the school.

— Could you describe in more detail your GiveHalf business model? It sounds great, but how does it actually work?

— When I decided that I want to do pro bono work, I also realized that I had to be sustainable and be able to have a staff and pay bills. So if I wanted to give half of my work away, I actually had to do twice the amount of work that another studio would do. As long as we have the same amount of paid projects, we’re doing just as fine as them. Of course the idea of literally having to do twice the work of somebody else in order to get by is stressful. But the thing is, my own business started on the Internet and I’m used to working remotely with people. I figured that it was easier to tap into a robust network of collaborators as opposed to having a really large, dedicated team. Today we have about 16 people on staff. I also noticed the importance of volunteers. And so, as a result we’ve grown a network of over 400 different individuals from all around the world who contribute to our pro bono projects and in doing so, we’re able to really increase our bandwidth and make working on 30 projects at the same time an affordable thing to do.

— But do you believe it’s essential to maintain that your permanent employees are involved in the pro bono work?

— I do. The approach that underpins our company culture is this desire to give back. That’s why our employees are attracted to come here ‒ because they really want to find a way for their work to have some sort of bigger purpose or meaning in the world. We give our staff the full ability to take on these pro bono projects and it doesn’t affect their salary in any way. We assign it to them just like we would a typical project.

— Is it very difficult to get your help? How tough is the competition between non-profits applying for your pro bono services?

— It’s very tough, unfortunately. Out of 100 non-profits that reach out, we probably work with a little bit over 40 or 50 of them. It’s not impossible, but it’s definitely very competitive. And there’s a good reason for that. People often think that we can take on any project that’s thrown our way because we have this big network of collaborators. The reason that we don’t do that is because we don’t consider ourselves a crowdsourcing service that simply farms projects to a ton of people without really caring about the final product. For us it’s really important that the team here are very hands-on in the quality assurance of the project and the creative direction of the project as well. As a result, we really can’t say yes to everybody, because if we did, we just wouldn’t be able to do a great job.

— And could you describe the selection process?

— It’s actually very simple. We always maintain this Give Half balance. It is essentially a spreadsheet with two columns: one column lists all of our current paid projects, the other column lists all of our current pro bono projects. And we always try to keep it as close to 50/50 as possible. The moment we get a new application, we take a look at our balance to check if it’s close enough to 50/50 and if we’re ready to take on a new pro bono project. And if it is, we’ll read this application and will consider it. There’s actually no other restriction beyond that. We don’t have favoritism towards any specific cause or country or region or anything like that. It’s all based on what our balance looks like and if there’s any opening available.

— How do you ensure that what you do is perceived authentic and is actually authentic?

— I do that by publicly saying this: if we ever go below 50% pro bono, I will resign from the company. So, that’s a public statement I’ve made several times and now I’ve said it in Russia too.

Project Give Half

Project Give Half

Project Give Half

Project Give Half

Project Give Half

— You also maintain a daily-updated page on paper.li, right? Why is that important to you?

— That’s basically a Twitter feed that we update around all of the different news about pro bono that’s going on around the world. And what’s great about it is that it’s actually a way of seeing how the pro bono world and its practices differ from country to country and how they are changing over time. For me personally it’s a way to basically stay in the loop on all of these interesting pro bono innovations.

— Do you think socially responsible projects are still in many ways a luxury that only well-established companies can afford? Or there are ways of integrating this kind of work into small-scale companies’ business models as well?

— I think, it depends on the kind of social impact you’re trying to make. The traditional view of philanthropy is that someone writes a really huge check and sends it to a non-profit in order to make a big impact. If you’re trying to donate a lot of money, being a larger business is much easier. However, what I really appreciate about the pro bono world is that there are far more of us with incredible skills than there are billionaires. If you have some sort of skill ‒ which all of us do ‒ you can actually provide that as a gift to somebody, and that is an amazing thing, because it doesn’t require any money to provide pro bono service. I find that pro bono is this new type of philanthropy that is not exclusive to the very wealthy.

Other example of social impact in business is this great trend among companies to be very specific in the type of communities that they employ. There’s a non-profit called Homeboy Industries, which employs formerly incarcerated people or people that used to be gang members. And they focus their employment on them, because in a lot of other companies in America, that’s a deal-breaker — having a criminal record will disqualify you from a job. Homeboy Industries were going to hire somebody anyway, but they decided to be more specific about it.

— Socially responsible projects are definitely on trend right now. We can just look at the prizes that were given away last year ‒ Alejandro Aravena won the Pritzker Prize and British design collective Assemble won the Turner Prize. The latter example is especially interesting given that Assemble are more of a socially responsible design collective who won a contemporary art prize. Why has this become so important now? What has changed?

— It’s funny, I would say that there’s not much that has changed, but the modes of communicating about this have definitely altered. In the last year we witnessed this really huge wave of exciting activism in the States that’s taken place over Twitter — things like #TheBlackLivesMatter and #OscarsSoWhite hashtags. Social media platforms have really elevated our ability to speak about issues but also to be aware of issues. Things like the refugee crisis, the environmental depletion of resources — more of us are becoming empathetic to those issues, because the Internet helps understand them.

— Do you also think that it may be a generational thing?

— Researchers who do a lot of generational research say that millennials very much represent this generation that is excited about finding purpose in work and in life, creating some sort of social impact. They favor socially-responsible brands as well. This generation is actually moving into the economic status where they can be major players in commerce and what they are buying is a huge influence on things.

— In your brief bio posted on verynice website you mention perceiving business as a medium. What do you mean by that?

It’s all coming from my design background: I make things. I’ve always questioned my interest in business and how it relates to my main occupation. Why is this design person talking about business? I don’t have a business degree or anything like that. But I really see business as a medium of design. When you think about design and the purpose of design ‒ it’s about creating sustainable solutions, it’s about creating systems. And the goals in business are exactly the same. The way I see it designers really should see business as a medium that they can create with.

— You also devised your own trademark toolkit to help people build business models. How did that idea come about? How long did it take to design this toolkit?

A lot of creative people, a lot of people that make things ‒ they’re very intimidated by business because it does feel like this very scary thing that’s all about math and numbers and accounting. As I’ve explained I don’t see it that way. And so I wanted to make some sort of resource for people that could easily explain what different business models are, how do you write a business plan and be accessible. Whenever you go to a social impact conference, you rarely hear about a range of different models that exist, very often there’s only a couple that are highlighted and I realize that there’s actually over a hundred of different models that people just aren’t recognizing or maybe there isn’t a proper name to them yet. So, that’s part of why I wanted to create this toolkit.

I’ve been studying these models for about three years now and the toolkit itself came together over the course of a year. To make that happen I was highlighting various workshops and various schools like General Assembly, and USC, and UCLA to really see how is this curriculum working. Are people responding well to it? Is it confusing or not? And over the course of that year I started to iterate on it and made it much better basically based on the feedback.

— Do you have any interesting case studies of people using your toolkits?

There was a really exciting one in the United States — Architecture for Humanity, which was a major non-profit organization that provided pro bono architecture services. They were a huge influence on me when I was starting Verynice, because they’ve been in the pro bono space for decades. Unfortunately, a couple of years ago they actually went bankrupt and this was a huge stab to the pro bono movement. But what ended up happening next completely blew my mind. A former employee of Architecture for Humanity, as well as some of that organization’s volunteers, had attended a webinar of mine, where I was talking about models of impact and the toolkit and they actually reached out and they asked if they could be a client of that or among first free users of this toolkit. We ended up doing several workshops together over Skype and I piloted a lot of the early iterations of the toolkit with them, and now they are actually re-launching their organization under a new name. They are going to reveal it next month. And that was really exciting just personally and professionally as well as an example there.

Another example of the toolkit being used in a very different scenario ‒ the California College of the Arts, their school in San Francisco. And they are really interesting: despite being an art school they have an MBA program. And a couple of years ago they invited me to create curriculum for a new class called ‘Social Entrepreneurship’. That was a great opportunity to actually expand models of impact into the entire course within an institution. And now we’re going to be doing it with Vector too — our first online course that I’m very excited about.

— It’s a difficult climate for social entrepreneurship in Russia right now, or any entrepreneurship for that matter. Should we wait for the crisis to settle down before developing this sphere?

— You see, what’s exciting about my process with models of impact is the idea that models are something that you can play with and iterate with over time. Regardless of the economic status right now, this at least can be leveraged as a tool to really imagine how all these various business models could take place and grow in Russia and elsewhere as well. Even if it’s not the right time to commit to these models, it is the time to be imagining the potential for them.