Making It Work – Nonprofits and Pro Bono Creative

Welcome back to guest blogger, Susie Bowie, Communications Manager at the Community Foundation of Sarasota County

There’s an unexpected stranger standing at the intersection between nonprofit organizations and creative agencies offering “free” website, advertising or marketing services.  He has many names, but is most commonly known as “Why did we say yes?,” “We should have thought about this more” and “Man, this is a disaster.”

The danger can come from both sides. Small to mid-sized nonprofit organizations are notoriously (but often unfairly) characterized as unsophisticated when it comes to marketing prowess. Boards and grantmakers alike often don’t want to fund basic marketing. Nonprofit staff can underestimate the investment of their time required—even in a pro bono project. On the agency side, creatives may get into the business of over-promising and under delivering to the simplistic nonprofit client who shouldn’t have been such a big deal.

I recently spoke with Patricia Courtois, Principal of Clarke Advertising and Public Relations (based in Sarasota, Florida), about how to make it all work from both sides of the fence. A long-time award-winning veteran of the advertising and public relations field with clients from Tropicana to Sara Lee and ClosetMaid, her team’s campaigns have won national recognition. Her recent engagement with All Faiths Food Bank here in Sarasota included a television spot that won a National ADDY. It was a great experience for both, by the way. And if anyone knows the ground rules for a healthy and productive engagement, Patricia does.

Here are some checkpoints, based on her extensive experience in the field:

For Nonprofits:

  • Free isn’t always better than nothing. Use discretion when it comes to choosing your creative consultant. Just because a company or individual offers their services without a fee doesn’t mean it’s the best fit for your organization. Do your homework—check references, find out what the agency might expect from your nonprofit in return. If they want to promote their firm on your collateral material, for example, that may be something you need to consider carefully.
  • Understand that you share the commitment. Pro bono creative still involves staff direction, availability and support from your nonprofit. Know that many times, agency staff work after-hours on your pro bono project so they can still fulfill obligations from paying clients. Respect that with flexibility and being super-organized so your meetings are efficient and productive.

For Creative Agencies:

  • Make sure your staff is fully committed to the cause. Is the nonprofit’s mission a fit with your agency’s mission? Is it something everyone is on board with? If not, your account executives may feel resentment about the use of their time on the project. And finally, the nonprofit engagement should be much more than a way for you to market your own services.
  • Make sure there’s skin in the game. Creative services can be undervalued if there is no cost at all to the nonprofit. Patricia recommends payment for some portion of the service—even based on a nominal amount a nonprofit may have budgeted—so there is some level of devotion to the project.
  • It’s a business contract, even if it’s pro bono. Providing a full scope of work to be jointly signed—along  with timelines, the number of hours being provided by the agency, graphic assets provided by the nonprofit, etc.—is key to avoiding frustration and inconsistent expectations.

The name of the game here is clearly defined boundaries, expectations and intentions. Keeping in mind that not every creative agency is a match for your nonprofit (and visa versa), you can use these guidelines to find the right partner and to firm up relationships with existing ones.

Check out All Faith’s Food Bank here to see the entire pro bono campaign.

P.S. Learn how to strengthen your nonprofit’s marketing impact with the new 2011 Guide to Nonprofit Marketing Wisdom.

Guest Blogger on March 17, 2011 in Strategy | 9 comments
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  • Great advice for nonprofits. I worked with two in the past they didn’t any resources or an idea on how to approach their marketing efforts. Their marketing plan was on one page. It truly needed a lot of work but once me and my partner audited the marketing plan they were able to see better results. And yes all the work we did was after hours and off the clock!

  • Patricia and Susie are right on target. Good advice all around. I’ll add one note – everytime I have assisted in a pro bono effort I have learned something of value and made a contact I would not have had otherwise. Also pro bono work allows you to step out of your routine and hone your skills in another arena.

  • Karen Dove

    I have done pro bono work in development, and what I found was it helped grow the small, inexperienced organizations tremendously, but there were some challenges, without a full understanding of where we were going when we left the station. I fully agree with setting clearly defined boundaries; this is essential to success. I wouldn’t say no to pro bono, but good communication is essential with all parties involved, BEFORE you get started. GREAT article…not just for PR but also for Development.

  • Thanks for the great comments, you all! Love to learn from working with noprofits on their projects–we can get so much out of it. And Karen–great point, this can apply to development too. Keep reading!

  • I’m sure it’s that stranger in the room who has the cousin who says: I don’t need to get a signed contract for this small pro bono project….

    PR agencies take on pro bono clients because they believe in a particular cause or organization….and In the enthusiam of good intentions, standard business practices sometimes fall by the wayside and when they do, the process can get pretty frustrating for both parties.

    Nonprofits mayy err in thinking the professional communicator can pull it off in a vacuum…. An outside agency, however seasoned and skillful, cannot ‘make’ a project successful without the participation of the client – nonprofit or otherwise.

    A good post about a frustrating situation where both parties want to succeed – and have the means to do so – but skipped including the ground rules…..

  • Thanks to Susie Bowie and our board member Patricia Courtois for sharing such great advice to ensure a successful outcome for both the nonprofit and creative agency doing pro bono work. As in so many endeavors, great communication and clear expectations will make for a winning partnership!

  • Great article and many excellent comments here. I would add that it’s important to set out expectations from the start. I think pro bono work is particularly susceptible to “scope creep”.

    Set out at the beginning, how many hours you are able to commit and what the project is likely to entail. Keep track of hours and report back to the nonprofit regularly about the time involved. This can help keep things on track and help the nonprofit to understand the value you are bringing to the table.

  • Another critical bullet point for nonprofits: make sure the firm/professional who donates services this time around has, at the very least, the opportunity to bid on future projects when you do have a budget. It kills me when a nonprofit relies on people who support the mission and elect to contribute considerable time & talent for lots of small jobs, then pays big money to a firm that has no connection and has never donated money or services.

    It is also helpful when creative firms give me a dollar figure for what their work would have cost had they not donated. And a itemized invoice (with the discount or donation amount at the bottom to zero it out) is even better. It helps me know what to expect to pay for future projects, which is something I need to know when budgeting.

  • Nancy Schwartz

    Great point, Andrea. Thanks for emphasizing it.

    Your recommendation makes perfect sense on a few fronts: 1) It’s respectful of those providing the pro bono services. 2) It enables the nonprofit to leverage the investment it’s made (and that made by the firm that provides the pro bono services).

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