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The story of us: Pro Bono Australia, and you


21 May 2020 at 7:55 am
Karen Mahlab AM
As Pro Bono Australia turns 20, founder and CEO Karen Mahlab AM reflects on how the organisation came about and the difference it has made in two decades.


Karen Mahlab AM | 21 May 2020 at 7:55 am


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The story of us: Pro Bono Australia, and you
21 May 2020 at 7:55 am

As Pro Bono Australia turns 20, founder and CEO Karen Mahlab AM reflects on how the organisation came about and the difference it has made in two decades.

Our organisation was born on the cusp of 2000, during the wild west days of the internet’s birth. The inspiration for Pro Bono Australia came from taking a three month break to recalibrate my frantic life. I read many books. Books like, The E Myth and Anita Roddick’s Body and Soul (Roddick is best known as the founder of The Body Shop). At the end of three months, the vision was clear: to use new technologies to build an organisation whose values were about supporting the community. A “social purpose business venture” was born. 

There wasn’t much like us around at the time. Had I lived in America I might have found my tribe, but in Australia there were few who understood what I was about. But a few did exist – and to those people I will always be grateful for being “seen” and supported. 

Over 20 years our vision has been to support the emergent social economy. The social economy is a term used to describe an economy that works for the people and planet, not the other way round, where people and planet work for the economy. The concept, and what it proposes for a new way of looking at the economy, has come of age as many of us discuss a post-COVID world. 

Pro Bono Australia has created the space, and held the intention, for the emergence of the social economy in Australia over the last 20 years. As a specialist, and sometimes activist, media organisation we have given a priority to its concerns, voice to its values, profile to its activities, and through our surveys we have provided an evidence base to inform good policy in the sector.  

Social enterprise, philanthropy, volunteering, not for profits, charity, corporate social responsibility, volunteering: these are all social economy sectors to which Pro Bono Australia has given voice, exposure and support to increase their profile. 


See our timeline of 20 years of Pro Bono Australia

Over 20 years, we have written over 15,000 articles, engaged 66,000 subscribers, and attracted 1.3 million users to our site each year. We have become a major hub for the social economy in Australia and play a vital part in its infrastructure. 

At times, we’ve gone deep in pushing for systemic improvements like the establishment of the Australian Charities and Not-for-profit Commission. Civil Voices was another important piece of activist work, as were our sector surveys in 2014 and 2015. We have served on many boards, committees and given the use of our platform to partners across the business, investment, philanthropic, volunteering and community sectors.

What we have witnessed with COVID-19 is economic priority being given to the social economy and those it serves. The vulnerable and vulnerabilities of our systems have come to the fore and the government has been quick to respond with funding. Our charities have been given special consideration through JobKeeper, our unemployed have been supported and seen as valid and valued human beings, mental health has been recognised as a real concern, science truly valued for its contribution and our frontline health workers are being celebrated. Long may it continue.

On Pro Bono Australia’s part, our hope is that we are able to keep producing good journalism, supporting events and issues, and generating evidence that allows for meaningful discussions on the issues that underpin a robust social economy for the next 20 years. 

Our name pro bono comes from the latin phrase “pro bono publico” which means for the common good. And that was our intention 20 years ago: to create an organisation that worked for the common good. 

We want to keep doing that. 

PS: If you really like who we are and what we do, consider a contribution to our work as a media voice and as a resource hub for the social economy.


Karen Mahlab AM  |  Founder  |  @kmahlab

Karen Mahlab AM is the Founder and CEO of Pro Bono Australia. In 2015 she was awarded a Member of the Order of Australia for her contribution to the Not for Profit sector and philanthropic initiatives.

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