Choosing pro-bono work that's valuable to clients and firms

When selecting a pro-bono project, firms should consider partnerships that not only enrich the client in need of service, but also align with their values, brand, skill sets, and culture.

When selecting a pro-bono project, firms should consider partnerships that not only enrich the client in need of service, but also align with their values, brand, skill sets, and culture.

Working with an organization on a pro-bono basis can be a rewarding experience for both the client and agency. But because there are so many opportunities, finding just the right client often involves a certain set of criteria.

"It's never easy to say no," says Beth Hallisy, a partner in Ohio-based Marcus Thomas. So the agency tries to pick causes or organizations that have a direct link to someone at the firm. "That helps a little bit," she notes.

The agency also will look for opportunities that align with its brand, personality, and values. For example, because the firm's logo features a dog, it has done some pro-bono work for an animal protection agency. Marcus Thomas also looks for projects that allow room for some creativity. "We're interested in doing a lot of guerrilla-type marketing," Hallisy adds.

For some agencies, having a genuine interest in the organization is one internal requirement for doing pro-bono work. For the past two years, Bromley/ MS&L has worked with the League of United Latin American Citizens, a relationship that MD Deborah Charnes Vallejo calls a "perfect fit."

"It's got to be something where we think our expertise can be used," she says, adding that the agency will only take on a pro-bono project if it has the staff, passion, and interest to complete it. "We want to make sure we're giving them the same quality of service," she says. "We want to make sure the team is going to feel really good about working on it."

Because most of the agency's regular work is national, Vallejo says that very often the pro-bono work is with organizations near the agency's San Antonio headquarters. "It gives us a way to connect with our local community," she says. "It gives you that sense of accomplishment, as well."

Aside from that, a pro-bono relationship should also help the agency achieve business goals, says Alicia Ritter, a former managing director in Ogilvy's Sacramento office and current PR consultant.

"It makes sense that you take a pro-bono client if there's some strategic need in the business for it," she says. Ten years ago, when Ogilvy was trying to get into the education arena, Ritter says it sought out a nonprofit organization in that space. "You want to maximize the opportunity," she notes. She suggests approaching prospective clients and telling them that the firm sees an opportunity to learn from working with it. "You need to be really up front and honest," Ritter says. "That leads off the relationship in a good way."

Even so, there should be a connection aside from business, she says. "It's good employee retention to let people work on things that they have a passion about," she says.

Charitable work figures heavily into the philosophy at Coyne PR, which aims to have at least two pro-bono projects per year.

"It's always been part of the culture," says Tom Coyne, president. "It just feels good to help." Some of the firm's pro-bono clients include the Girl Scouts of New Jersey and the New Jersey Daredevils hockey team. Possible partners are suggested by clients and staffers, while others result from cold calls.

The most important factor in deciding which clients to take on, Coyne says, is that the agency believes in the cause.

"At the end of the day, it's really about pride in your work," he says. "It really shines through when you're talking to the media."

Goodman Media International has worked with the Joe Torre Safe at Home Foundation, its first and only pro-bono client, for almost two years. Tom Goodman, president and CEO, says that it was important to establish the agency, which is almost 9 years old, before taking on such a client. He acknowledges that working with Torre's foundation was just the right opportunity. "You don't get an opportunity to work with someone like Joe Torre more than once in your life," he says. "The timing was key for us."

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Tips for selecting a pro-bono client

  • Work with organizations that have a direct link to someone on staff or one of the existing clients

  • Seek clients that will offer the agency the chance to expand into new markets or utilize underused skills

  • Make sure the account team is personally invested in the organization's cause

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