Pro Bono: Do Right by Doing Good

Forget the excuses. In good markets or in bad, it's always the right time to consider pro bono work.

August 1, 2010

"We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give." Those words from Winston Churchill provide a strong case for charitable work in any profession.

But for those who work in real estate—who have direct contact with families who’ve been hit hard by the economy and need guidance on a major financial transaction—the case is even stronger.

Yes, difficult times persist for many who work in the real estate profession, maybe even you. But these challenges should hardly keep you from engaging in public service. In fact, it’s during times like these that leaders can really shine.

As a real estate professional, you do more than sell homes. You must innovate beyond product, be a leader in word and in charitable action. You know your neighborhood like no one else and you’re in a unique position to help others.

Beyond just benefiting the community, public service is good for the economy, good for business, and good for you as a person. It also elevates the Realtor® brand by showing how committed you are to the betterment of your community.

I believe every practitioner has a professional responsibility to provide real estate–related services, without compensation, to those unable to pay or of limited means. I would recommend a goal of rendering pro bono service on at least one real estate transaction per year, even as the economy improves.

Be proactive to find ways to keep families in their homes instead of figuring out ingenious ways to make money from their misfortune, as some unsavory companies do.

Time to Get Started

The transactional pro bono work is what scares some folks. But it shouldn’t. This is where the pro bono rubber meets the road. Here’s a sampling of ways you can give back:

  • Don’t charge a commission to sellers who are struggling to make ends meet. (Of course, it’s always a good idea to inform and receive the consent of your broker when waiving compensation.)
  • Donate the commission you earned on a transaction to the buyer, so that the buyer may use it to pay for needed repairs. A low-income buyer might be able to buy a fixer-upper but may not be able to afford the repairs. This act will immediately enhance the value of the property and the living conditions of the buyer.
  • Represent clients, at no cost, at a tax assessment hearing to lower their property taxes. A low-income client may be unable to afford an attorney to do this work and unaware that a real estate professional is qualified as an expert to gather the information to help win a reduction.
  • Donate a referral fee received from another agent to help a client in a real estate crisis.
  • Help a renter in a crime-ridden area buy a fixer-upper in a safer neighborhood by donating your earned commission. If brokers and agents on both sides contribute to this act, even more "good" work will get done.

Inspire Others

If you’re already doing pro bono work, it’s time to spread the word about your good deeds. Real estate professionals do charitable acts every day, but the public rarely hears about them. Don’t think of it as bragging; think of it as motivating others.

Plus, there is little denying that the real estate profession could benefit from a boost in its public image, even with the progress made by the National Association of Realtors®’ public awareness campaign.

As in other industries, pro bono work can be good for real estate businesses. After your pro bono customers are helped, they’ll tell others. And they will never forget the good deed. People want to work with professionals whose moral compass is pointed in the right direction.

Doing good deeds should be a guiding principle for all. Let’s do more than just think about it. Let’s do it.

Note: Opinions expressed in "Commentary" do not necessarily reflect the position of the NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS® or REALTOR® Magazine.

Joseph G. Ferrara is a real estate columnist, attorney, and speaker. He is a pioneer in the real estate social networking community. At press time, he was battling a malignant brain tumor.