It's widely accepted, in our enlightened day and age, that doing pro bono work is part of the price of being a polite member of the business community.
However, while most PR firms do engage in some level of giveaway service, their commitments range from one-off backslaps designed mostly of marketing copy, to truly intense year-round programs that meet the same standards as highly paid client work.
Sorting out exactly how to solve the pro bono puzzle is a task that agency executives must approach with their business, their employees, and their conscience in mind.
For large, global firms, pro bono engagements often match the scale of their ambitions. Ketchum, for example, is a partner with the World Economic Forum (WEF) and gives the WEF a great deal of "in-kind" work on its Global Health Initiative. The account is run out of London, with assistance from the firm's DC and Beijing offices. It is Ketchum's largest pro bono account, notes London office head David Gallagher.
"I think the rule is, you've got to treat them like a paying client," Gallagher says. "Otherwise, they feel like a second-class client."
Although Ketchum does receive the ancillary benefits of being treated as a member of the WEF in exchange for its efforts, that is not the firm's driving motivation.
"For us, it's more of a way to attract and keep people. The best people expect their employer to be socially responsible and to be engaged in this type of activity," he says. "They'll work for someone who is doing it if we're not."
Some firms have actually formalized the process of selecting charity clients, so nobody is accused of favoritism. North Carolina-based Capstrat created its own internal-review team, the "Boomerang Society," to direct the company's pro bono work. The employee-led committee has turned it into an RFP process in reverse: Nonprofits come to audition for the firm's services. Clients over the past six years have ranged from local women's shelters to the Make-A-Wish Foundation.
"We let the organization say, 'These are what our most pressing needs are,' and then we work with them to prioritize," says Capstrat EVP Karen Albritton. "We've done everything from branding to traditional media relations and even Web [work]."
At a minimum of 150 hours per year, Capstrat makes a significant time commitment to each pro bono client. But Albritton says the firm's pro bono efforts help keep employees happy and give younger staffers a chance to work outside of their comfort zone. But she adds that "it's not a business-development tool for us."
At Spectrum Science Communications in Washington, DC, the firm's specialized knowledge is put to work in pro bono efforts for science-based clients.
The firm has helped to publicize the fight against a children's disease on behalf of the Progeria Research Foundation and even helped run a campaign to fund a financially threatened science fair in Montgomery County, MD.
Spectrum founder and president John Seng says that the client selection process is one that has evolved over time and essentially comes down to his judgment call.
"It's not very scientific," he says. "The first question we ask ourselves is, 'Can this be a good learning experience?'"
Engaging in pro bono work can help attract and retain employees
Tailor pro bono efforts to match agency expertise
A formal pro bono client selection process can help avoid favoritism allegations