Pro bono work is as much a part of public relations as pitching and passing out business cards. Every agency with an inkling of insight about their image, regardless of size or geography, engages in at least one charity cause, almost by necessity.
In Irvine, CA, it's a celebrity-studded Shaqtacular with the LA Lakers' legendary basketball star that raises money for mentoring programs. In Gig Harbor, WA, it involves getting out the hammers to build a new playground from scratch. And in LA, it means staging a swanky luncheon to raise money for Big Brothers and Big Sisters.
But while donating time and resources to needy nonprofits has become the industry standard, it is by no means a jaded practice.
Across the county, PR pros from newly hired account executives to seasoned SVPs point to pro bono projects as some of the most rewarding and personally important accounts they work on. They credit charity projects with increasing their job satisfaction, building skills, and even garnering loyalty toward their firms.
And savvy companies can spot the business value - beyond simple image-building - of a good pro bono relationship as well. Whether it's for raising morale, retaining staff, or networking new contacts, freebie accounts are honored as some of the most valuable names on the client list.
"It's the rent you pay to live in the kind of society we live in, says Lee Duffey, head of Atlanta-based Duffey Communications. "We have a number of institutions and organizations that aren't supported by tax dollars or other traditional sources of funding, and they depend on pro bono to complete their mission. We use it as a payback to society."
"It's about the ethics of an organization, agrees Sara Gavin, president of Hill & Knowlton's Twin Cities operations, which donates up to $125,000 worth of time to pro bono causes each year. "In a way that I would not have expected, it informs all of our work, and enriches our ability to do all of our work. It gives us another prism under which to see and understand the community we're in."
Sense of satisfaction
For PR staff, pro bono accounts are not only a chance to feel good about a profession that is often maligned as failing to contribute to society, but can also lead to new skills, better contacts, and a personal sense of satisfaction.
At LA-based public affairs specialist Ron Rogers & Associates, pro bono work is a part of company life. So much so, that staffers say they've become more loyal to Rogers' shop because of the commitment he shows to social causes, and the leeway he gives staff to work on projects close to their hearts.
"I always say I'd never go to another PR firm because the climate here is so great, says Helen Sanchez, a management supervisor at Rogers who translated her personal involvement in Big Sisters to a company-sponsored pro bono project. Now the firm helps the mentoring organization stage an annual fundraiser luncheon that draws almost 400 guests.
"Ron (Rogers) would let us sit here and actually sell tables and write scripts or have committee meetings, says Sanchez of her charity planning work. "In fact, there were a couple of weeks before the event when I would do nothing but that. I think when you have management that cares about the community, it makes you feel better about working for them."
Along with that good-deed high and increase in morale, staffers often get the chance to work on new skills by being involved in charity accounts.
H&K's Twin Cities office uses its pro bono program to expose employees to areas that are out of the scope of their daily work. Tech experts, for example, might find themselves handling media relations, and junior staffers may get to head up their own projects. The company also mixes and matches staff, pairing up working groups that usually have little contact in an effort to build a closer corporate culture.
"It allows people who might not normally work together to work together, explains Gavin. "And it allows people who might not normally present projects a chance to present."
For Sterling Communications in Gig Harbor, WA, charity work started as a way to get out of the office. Staff members, looking for a bonding experience volunteered their time to help build a local playground, says Sterling's Michelle Sloan. But when the playground's sponsor mentioned it needed help gaining publicity for the new facility, Sterling employees quickly volunteered their specialized skills. "It was a huge success, garnering tremendous local coverage, and providing a more creative thinking outlet for junior-level staff, exudes Sloan of the resulting efforts.
The philosophy of using pro bono work to enhance the skills of junior staff is also used at H&K's Irvine, CA office, where less-experienced employees use the annual Shaqtacular fundraiser to polish their pitching skills, and score some face time with members of the media. The event, hosted by Shaquille O'Neal, pits celebrity and sports figures against each another in "Shaq-ified games, such as a relay race in oversized sneakers, or an aquatic game of basketball.
The star-powered day at Universal Studios is a big draw for major media, such as Entertainment Tonight.
Staff members "will show off and talk about Shaqtacular as one of the most fun and gratifying experiences they've had at Hill & Knowlton," says Irvine MD Todd Brooks. "In our world, you wonder sometimes what difference you're making in PR, and to know that all of the money that's being raised is going to profit these nonprofit groups is pretty rewarding."
But equally important, he adds, "it gives our staff an opportunity to meet the reporters in person they might be pitching. You're building good relationships with the media that you work with day in and day out."
Rogers & Associates' Sanchez also points out that those types of networking opportunities are invaluable to staff members on a personal level as well.
"It's how I knew about the job here at Rogers, she says of her charity connections. She met a Rogers VP while volunteering on the board of a Latin charity. When the new friend heard she was in the market for a PR job, "she said, 'Why don't you come work with me?'"
The business effect
Of course, the tangible benefits aren't just reserved for staff. Company executives say their charity work has a measurable effect on business as well.
"It makes good sense because we're counseling our clients to do this every day, says Bonnie Goodman, head of H&K's LA office, which also helps out with Shaqtacular . "We need to be doing what we're preaching, and teaching our clients to do."
Goodman points out that pro bono clients help her firm build a reputation as "a good corporate citizen."
"We do this because we have a good heart, but not solely out of the goodness of our hearts, adds Duffey. "We use pro bono as a strategy."
PR professionals point out that the boards of charities are often filled with high-level executives from companies that could be turned into clients.
Charity events also give firms a chance to raise awareness of the kinds of services they offer, and increase the company's visibility within the community.
"There are emotional rewards, business rewards, and personal rewards," says Duffey. "The ideal pro bono candidate has all three of those in one."
Striking the right balance
There are potential drawbacks, however.
Companies run the danger of burning out employees or ignoring paying clients if they don't watch how much time goes into charity projects.
"Sometimes it seems we have more pro bono clients than paying, jokes Rogers, adding that charity accounts require as much dedication and effort as regular clients.
While staff may start out enthusiastic with all those worthy organizations to help, freebie clients can become burdensome if they're not monitored like their billed counterparts. "It can get out of hand if you don't budget for it, cautions Gavin.
Most agencies have formal processes for picking and managing pro bono clients, many of which allow staff input as to which causes to support.
At Duffey's firm, for example, proposals are examined twice a year, and likely contenders presented at a staff meeting. Only when there is excitement and consensus among employees is a cause taken on.
"It's easy sometimes for us to give a dollar or a check, points out Duffey, "But it's harder to give time. We basically assign (a time budget) based on where we think we'll get the greatest return, both emotionally and from a business standpoint."
But despite the caution, Duffey is the first to point out that his firm's time is well rewarded by the enjoyment the work brings - a sentiment echoed by others across the industry.
"It's all about making this a better world, a better place to live," says Sanchez. "And I think that's important for all business to support."
'I took away from this experience as much as I gave'
By Angela Seutter
Last year, I was a member of a pro bono account team working with the Down Syndrome Association of Minnesota (DSAM). We treat our pro bono program participants the same as paying clients. Each is assigned an account team that helps develop creative programs and skills that will be in place long after Weber Shandwick's involvement ends.
As we worked together throughout the year, the entire team inspired me.
The DSAM had great stories to share about people with Down syndrome accomplishing amazing things. My colleagues, many of whom I'd never had the chance to work with before, were dedicated to giving the DSAM the tools it needed to tell its story.
We helped the DSAM refine messages, generate new story angles, and gain a better understanding of media relations. And the DSAM reminded us that passion and determination are essential for reaching any goal, personal or professional.
One of the most visible results of this relationship was a feature in a local daily detailing the education of one small child with Down syndrome.
Using the communications tools Weber Shandwick Worldwide provided, the DSAM developed and placed the story. We just watched proudly from the sidelines.
WSW's annual pro bono program keeps all of us grounded in our local community.
The knowledge I've gained from working with pro bono clients makes me a better practitioner, which benefits all of my clients. My work with other nonprofits in the community is more informed because of the insight into the day-to-day operations I got working on a pro bono account. I know I took away from this experience as much as I gave.
- Angela Seutter is an SAE at Weber Shandwick Worldwide in Minneapolis.
Over the past 15 years, the office has contributed more than $1 million in cash and pro bono services to local nonprofits.