When it comes to charitable giving, typically, we think in terms of money or basic goods, like clothing or food, since these are the most obvious needs; however, there is always one commodity which we can donate that is far more scarce – our time. Though volunteering any time is a donation of love and care, there are also specific skills and professions whose value far outweighs the time donated. Individually, these skills can be anything from offering free legal counsel and medical care, to coaching and mentoring, and even giving financial advice and developing open-source software/apps, but, when combined, they are all considered to be a part of today’s word.
Coming from the Latin phrase pro bono publico, meaning literally ‘for the good of the public’, our shortened word, pro bono, is all about making the world a better place by giving time and expertise with no expectation of financial recompense. To put it another way, not everyone can afford the specialized services of a lawyer, doctor, or accountant, but pro bono work helps to assure that those in need of these services have access to them; moreover, in many aspects, pro bono works seek to assist those with the tools and knowledge that is not readily available to them. Looking at the Latin itself, there’s really no specified implication for the phrase; yet, since it first came to use in the Roman judicial system, which has heavily influenced all Western legal systems, the majority of its usages come from the legal area.
The first known usage of the overall pre-shortened phrase in English can be found in Henry Parker’s 1640 writing on The Case of Shipmony (Ship Money), where he writes that: “The Law is, that where the whole state in grantee, that grant shall have the force of a Statute, because it is pro bono publico.”
In its shortened form, the first usage would occur more than a century later, when a London merchant was writing to partners in pre-Revolutionary War Martland (America): published in 1979, Joshua Johnson’s Letterbook contains a letter from February 25, 1774 which states, “You will remember you thought Earle & Co. pro bono and of the first consequence; we will only tell you that we have not one single farthing of their money as yet.”
As stated before, the term has always had a majority of its usage and understanding in the legal arena; however, since – at the very least – the mid-1700s, the term has also had a more generalized and situation-applicable understanding, such as when, in his Letters, English actor, producer, and theatre manager David Garrick wrote in 1769 asking and suggesting: “Is Your Friend Mr Farmer asleep? Such Men ought to be Waked pro bono publico.”
So, based on its usage, pro bono can really mean a number of things, based on the subject matter: it can be the heights of egalitarianism or just simply not talking to someone until they have had their morning coffee.