Bringing Pro Bono Culture to the Engineering Profession

Tuesday, March 1st, 2016
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A new venture launched by Engineers Without Borders Australia seeks to bring the pro bono culture that has long flourished within the legal profession to Australia’s engineering and construction sectors.

Lizzie Brown, EWB Connect’s lead, said that while members of Australia’s engineering profession are eager to engage in pro bono work for the benefit of the broader community, up until now the industry has lacked established mechanisms or a general culture to foster such undertakings.

“We know the profession is receptive, because we’ve been working in collaboration with engineering firms over the past twelve to thirteen years already,” said Brown, who will be delivering a presentation on EWBA’s new initiative at the Design Build Expo in May.

“There is significant demand from Australian engineering and construction companies to become a lot more involved in pro bono work. Unlike the legal profession, however, we don’t yet have an embedded culture of pro bono work within the engineering and construction sectors.”

In order to redress this and provide altruistic engineers with better means and opportunities to engage in charitable work, Engineers Without Borders Australia has established a new program called EWB Connect.

“In the 1990s there was a concerted effort by law firms to make expertise available to clients that weren’t able to pay full fees, so state-based clearing houses were established to help those organisations and individuals access the expertise of the legal profession,” said Brown.

“This has evolved to the point now that numerous law firms subscribe to an annual and voluntary target of 35 hours per lawyer per year and the target covers over 12,000 lawyers. There is an embedded culture where law students know it’s expected of the profession and many practising lawyers will regularly undertake pro bono work.

“We’d like to see the same happen across the engineering and construction professions, because the companies we’re involved with can provide absolutely critical infrastructure and access to technology to the community.”

Brown hopes the establishment of EWB Connect will play a critical role in fostering the growth of such a pro bono culture by providing engineering companies with the type of state-based clearing house first employed in the legal sector.

“EWB Connect will essentially act as a clearing house to refer or link community organisations that need support to the relevant expertise within our profession,” she said.

“The reality is that engineering and construction companies have been doing pro bono work for many years, but it’s typically been ad hoc, and championed by one or two individuals with connections to community organisations.

“What we’re hoping to do is to support companies to make it much more strategically aligned with their core business, and to make it something that’s really a part of how the company works, with a formal national strategy and budget and supporting structure.”

EWB Connect has already kicked off in earnest, with corporate members eager to climb on board and a number of projects already underway.

“Our first five corporate members have already joined EWB Connect, and at the moment four of those five are actively involved in pro bono projects that we’ve referred to them,” Brown said.

The work performed by Engineers Without Borders Australia runs across a gamut of sectors across multiple parts of the country.

“There are great examples of our projects in areas of renewable energy, infrastructure and digital access, located in regional and remote locations as well as metropolitan areas,” Brown said.

“We’re working with the Cairns office of the Centre for Appropriate Technology, for example, to support a number of Aboriginal community organisations up in the Cape York area, and help them gain improved access to basic infrastructure.

“Closer to home, we’re working with a community organisation just to the north west of Melbourne to look at the feasibility of various renewable energy options – wind energy in particular.”

Brown points to the benefits for both engineering companies and individual professionals of engaging in pro bono work.

“Doing pro bono work can be exceptionally rewarding for the individual involved – it’s a great way to meet new people and apply your skills in context, so there’s significant motivation for individuals employees to engage and many are advocating to their companies to set up formal programs,” she said.

“There’s a whole range of benefits for companies as well – first and foremost is that it’s an opportunity for them to use their expertise to contribute towards public good and to support community organisations.

“From a more commercial perspective, it’s a way for them to become an employer of choice, creating an excellent culture for their employees because they’re investing in something that is positive but isn’t a legislative requirement.

“This makes them attractive to future employees, benefiting the staff in terms of professional career development and giving them exposure to new types of clients in new types of environments.”

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