For the greater good

Pro-bono relationships require careful thought and planning, but in the long run they benefit both the client and agency.

Pro-bono relationships require careful thought and planning, but in the long run they benefit both the client and agency.

In 2005, Porter Novelli decided to re-examine its approach to pro-bono commitments. While the agency had regularly worked on such accounts, "there had never been an attempt to centralize [pro-bono work] or tie it back to the [agency's] core values and what we say about ourselves externally and internally," says David Zucker, partner and director of PN's CauseWorks practice.

To get started, PN conducted an internal survey of employees to determine what issues were important to them, ultimately selecting the concept of youth as global leaders. That focus led the agency to choose the International Youth Foundation (IYF), an organization that operates in 70 countries to improve the conditions and prospects for youth.

Helping tell the story

"With any not-for-profit organization, the need to tell stories is huge because that's how you articulate your global impact," says Alan Williams, IYF VP. "Being able to tell a story in a strategic way, in a compelling way, is often something that nonprofits need assistance with."

PN has concentrated its efforts on YouthActionNet (YAN), the IYF's leadership-focused program, of which Nokia is a founding sponsor. Such corporate involvement was part of the reason PN decided to work with the organization, says Jim Healy, SVP at PN.

Williams describes PN as a "critical local partner" for the organization, especially as it expands YAN into physical institutes, the first of which opened in Mexico City late last year. The agency helped to coordinate media requests, arranged speaking engagements, and provided hands-on marketing communications training, as well as training to the social entrepreneurs identified by YAN.

In November, PN invited 22 of those entrepreneurs to its DC office to participate in a one-day intensive seminar dedicated to helping the "next generation of leaders become better communicators," Healy says.

PN hopes to expand the agency's involvement with the IYF in the next year to make it easier for staff members to engage with YAN entrepreneurs via a virtual institute. "I think we can open up a level of access across our agency where anyone can interact and engage with a [YAN] fellow," Healy says.

Zucker adds that the global nature of the program also will provide valuable experience for employees who may not yet have the chance to work on such accounts. "Just by the nature of the program, it means they'll be engaged with staff from other [PN] offices around the world and working on issues and topics that are of a global nature," he says.

Healy notes that interacting with YAN and its entrepreneurs also provides motivation for the agency's younger staff.

"When [employees] in their 20s meet these people... they get fired up," he says. "The opportunities are there professionally, for sure. But personally, these folks are inspired."

Very often agencies are introduced to pro-bono opportunities via their paying clients. Such is the case with Airfoil PR's involvement with The Children's Center, which it connected with through its work with Microsoft. Airfoil began working with the organization - which provides various services for children and families in Detroit and the surrounding areas - a few months ago and has provided strategic counsel as the 76-year-old organization redefines its positioning in the nonprofit marketplace.

"In today's shrinking economy, we have to maximize every opportunity if we're going to remain a viable organization," says Doug Ferrick, chief development officer at The Children's Center.

Eric Kushner, VP at Airfoil, says the agency worked with Intellitrends to do a two-part survey of the organization's staff, volunteers, and clients to determine appropriate messaging going forward.

"We could never in a million years afford the type of quality, thorough analysis, and planning that Airfoil has provided us," Ferrick says. "It's really going to take the agency to the next level."

Working on the account has been especially beneficial to Liz Pandzich, an account executive at Airfoil, because she has had the opportunity to do things she normally wouldn't have until later in her career.

"The clients that we work on here are such large corporations that it's really hard to get face time with executives," she says. "Working with The Children's Center [gives me the] ability to get face time with executives from corporations [in the area], but also be part of the planning process."

Picked by passion

While many agencies have set criteria for choosing a pro-bono client, others apply the same set of guidelines as they would for a regular client.

"I don't take on clients that I'm not passionate about, and I look at pro-bono clients in the same way - it's someone that I'd want to do work for if I were getting paid," says Michelle Flowers, president of Flowers Communications Group. "I have to feel passionate about the cause, the issue, the organization, and what they stand for."

For the past six months, Flowers Communications has been working with the Little Rock Nine Foundation to promote its upcoming 50th anniversary fundraiser gala. The Little Rock Nine was a group of black students that were escorted into the previously segregated Central High School in Little Rock, AK, in 1957. The agency will develop a media strategy, conduct outreach, and offer on-site support at the gala.

"We are very much a proponent of our clients putting back into the communities in which they do business," Flowers says. "This allows us an opportunity to practice what we preach."

Making the most of a pro-bono relationship

Cathy Renna, managing partner of Renna Communications, offers these tips for a successful pro-bono relationship:

Pick pro-bono clients that align with the agency's core philosophy and goals

Make sure to establish the parameters of the relationship ahead of time, including how much time the agency can devote to the account. "It's great that firms can give services for free, but, as businesses, they have to gauge how much they can devote to pro-bono clients," Renna says.

Look at the in-house PR experience of the organization; many organizations have volunteers who can write the first draft of the press release or assist in outreach. "A firm should really be providing the things that only a firm can," Renna notes.

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