Firms also help themselves with strategic pro-bono partnerships

If there is one bright spot to be found in the seemingly endless stream of bad economic news, it is that the spirit of philanthropy remains strong.

If there is one bright spot to be found in the seemingly endless stream of bad economic news, it is that the spirit of philanthropy remains strong. This is certainly true of corporations, as survey after survey has revealed their plans to remain committed to cause marketing, even as those companies have reduced marketing budgets and even instituted layoffs. The 2008 PRWeek/Barkley Public Relations Cause Survey found that 72% of companies with cause marketing programs said the economy will not impact those efforts.

That line of thinking also extends to the agency world, as PR firms are continuing their work with pro-bono clients, in some cases even taking on new ones. Yet, as shown in this week's Market Focus, some firms are revising their approach to working with such clients in the wake of the current economic situation.

For agencies, the decision to take on pro-bono clients is often driven by various factors. Not only is it something that is now expected of corporate America, but also research shows that staffers, especially Millennials, are consistently demanding it. People want to feel good about the place where they spend 40 to 60 hours a week. Maybe partly for this reason, pro-bono work, much like cause marketing, too often was viewed as something that is done simply because it's “the right thing to do,” rather than as a strategic business decision.

While the motives behind taking on pro-bono work should be based in altruism, it is foolish to forget the business benefits that such a relationship can bring to the firm and to choose pro-bono clients accordingly. Some agencies have adopted a “reverse RFP” approach, where they ask potential pro-bono clients to submit detailed proposals of the work and results that they expect from an agency partner. This is definitely a good idea because it helps to set parameters and manage expectations – crucial to any client/agency relationship.

During a time when resources are low, it's important for agencies to maximize the investment that accompanies pro-bono work. Just as corporations support causes that align with their target audience and organizational culture, agencies should do the same. It can mean choosing pro-bono clients that complement their current client roster so that possible partnerships can form between those paying and non-paying clients. – and so all clients can benefit from newly formed media relationships or other innovation.

The most valuable investment related to pro-bono accounts is often the time of the agency staff. And while it's important to have senior oversight of a pro-bono account, firms should take advantage of the valuable experience it can provide for younger staffers – especially at a time when agencies can't afford traditional career-development and employee-training programs.

Pro-bono work will likely continue no matter how bad things get. Yet, more strategic thinking about the relationship can help make it beneficial to both parties.

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