PR firms rethink pro-bono strategy

Agencies and their pro-bono clients are working together to make the relationship work while accomplishing comms goals.

Agencies and their pro-bono clients are working together to make the relationship work while accomplishing comms goals.

Last summer, Mercy Corps bought a commercial bank in Indonesia to help fund micro-financing institutions and provide the country's poor with access to financial services. The humanitarian-aid nonprofit, known regionally for its disaster relief work, was also in the midst of a larger awareness campaign.

The Indonesia program, called “Bank of Banks,” is one of many that Waggener Edstrom, the organization's pro-bono agency, has been spotlighting in a strategic effort to raise awareness of Mercy Corps' many programs.

“We wanted to move beyond being a reactive [communications team] and beyond the [Pacific Northwest] home base for more national coverage,” says Joy Portella, director of communications for Mercy Corps. “[The bank] is an example of something cool and interesting we're doing, and it might make people think differently about us as an agency.”

She adds that in this economy, having a broad reach to people who might support the organization's mission is “more vital than ever.”

Strategic planning
As nonprofits look to heighten their profiles and rally support, PR firms find they must take a strategic approach to managing pro-bono programs to generate results.

WE will continue to commit 1% of its revenue to pro-bono services, with confidence that the percentage will increase in 2009, says Matt Reid, EVP of corporate communications and public affairs at WE.

“For... businesses... nonprofits, and government [to] tackle social issues, [our approach] needs to be market-driven and sustainable – and so does our commitment,” he notes.

And though Mercy Corps has not experienced a lapse in donations, Reid says the organization “has been wisely preparing for what could be a difficult year for nonprofits.”

To generate buzz around “Bank of Banks,” the team developed messaging, crafted a story around the work the organization was doing, and conducted media outreach.

Portella says that working with WE, the organization was able to expand its regional coverage, where many donors reside, to national and international outlets. She adds that the team has also recently focused on leveraging the profiles of the organization's executives in its outreach strategy.

“We get so much emergency coverage because it's breaking news stuff,” she notes. “[The bank] is a harder story to tell and get attention for, but it's absolutely the kind of work we're pursuing that can be groundbreaking to move thousands out of poverty.”

She explains that six months after the bank launched, BusinessWeek covered the story, and there's potential for longer-term coverage. “Now that the bank is giving loans to people, there are stories we can tell of real people – hopefully in a couple of months – who have benefited,” she says. “As the bank develops, we could be telling stories for quite some time.”

Economic factors

Like the team at WE, Trevor Yager, a principal at TrendyMinds, an Indianapolis-based integrated marketing agency, says his firm has had to be more strategic in its approach to work with nonprofits, partially as a result of the recession.

Yager has noticed a hike in requests from local nonprofits for pro-bono communications support.

“We were finding that with the economy, a lot [of organizations] were asking for services all the time, and some don't understand that when you say no, you just can't do it,” he says.

In years past, the agency looked at doing pro-bono PR on a case-by-case basis. For 2009, to ensure an effective service plan with sustainable results, it decided to streamline its approach and be more formal in its selection of clients. A new application process, designed like a nonprofit grant program, requires organizations to fill out a one-page questionnaire.

In November, the agency chose Indy Hub, a local group trying to get young pros to the city via volunteering and sitting on community boards, as one of the clients. The group, though funded through this year, was concerned about the next grant cycle and looking for ways to diversify income and generate revenue. The agency is looking to introduce and generate paid sponsorships and potentially paid memberships via the agency's Web site and local media outreach.

“Anything we develop needs to have a media relations plan to get the message out,” Yager says.

He says that sustaining the agency's pro-bono program, especially in this kind of economic environment, is a smart way to build relationships and potentially generate new business. Part of the agency's 2009 protocol is that if clients receive grants, and choose to use the funds for additional PR or interactive services, they cannot pay other agencies for the services.

John Deveney, president of New Orleans-based Deveney Communications, agrees that pro-bono work, especially in his still-recovering region, should be a priority. At a recent employee retreat, he devoted a chunk of time to revaluating the firm's pro-bono program for an approach that enables clients to reap the benefits of its PR services in the long run.

“One complaint you hear from firms is, ‘We do pro-bono and when we walk away it collects dust,'” he says. “Given the economic times and that people have to do more with less, really it's a time to make sure that what you're doing is substantive.”

He explains that at one point, the agency provided media training for nonprofit leaders, but was discouraged when one leader leveraged the training to get a different job, rather than “further the [organization's] mission.”

Instead of continuing to choose organizations at random, the firm will invite five to eight organizations doing meaningful work – whether related to healthcare, regional recovery, or other categories – to apply to be a pro-bono client, Deveney explains.

The application will task organizations to explain which services – media training, strategic analysis and planning, crisis plan review, communications function review, or new media boot camp – could have the most substantial impact on its mission.

“We're going to do more vetting at the beginning... to make sure this will bear fruit,” Deveney says. “[We want] it to have a sustaining and significant impact.”

Making pro-bono work
Refine strategies for individual clients, including media outreach that can provide long-term story angles for an organization

Support local organizations to invest in the community and conveniently provide hands-on support

Use an application process to choose a pro-bono client that is able to specify the types of services that would best impact its mission

Leverage relevant nonprofit trends, like government partnerships, to develop compelling messages and stories for media

Garner long-term relationships with pro-bono clients to create the potential for new business opportunities in the future

*The title of this feature in print appears as "Shift in strategy"

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