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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.

Stand Up and Speak Out – Nonprofits Are Getting Dissed

I want to welcome guest blogger Susie Bowie.  As communications manager at the Community Foundation of Sarasota, she is a passionate and talented  force helping organizations in the region develop their nonprofit marketing finesse. Today, Susie heralds her call to action to us nonprofit marketers…

Recently, I’ve heard a couple of remarks about nonprofits and nonprofit staff that just kill me…

First a local business person shared his view that “most of us drawn to nonprofit leadership roles care about charitable work but generally lack the skills to be leaders in the for-profit world.

Then Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, bluntly stated (his modus operandi) that nonprofits don’t have the power to change the world because they “have no resources” and are “constantly out trying to raise money instead of generating it and being self-sufficient.”

My guess is that if I’ve heard such patronizing criticism from these vocal folks in just the past couple of weeks, that this perspective is fairly widespread.

Why should nonprofit marketers care about such silly comments?

Each time word goes out, in a comment, article or broadcast – about how ineffective or unprofessional our sector is – it costs us financial support. Those messages generate doubts among our supporters, much less those who are still prospects. A heavy onus lies with nonprofit communicators to set it straight, but we can’t do it alone.

So what can and should nonprofit communicators professionals do about it within our sector? Here are three ways we can advocate for the truth:

1) Nurture the business people who do understand the power of nonprofits, support us with sponsorship dollars and provide us with outstanding board leaders.

In Sarasota, FL, local companies like Cavanaugh & Co, Kerkering Barberio, SunTrust and Northern Trust are just a few of the successful for-profits doing their part. As nonprofit communicators, we must thank such boosters profusely and set the stage for keeping the relationships going, highlighting their good work in our nonprofit’s outreach and encouraging our leadership to spread the praise.

It’s simply good public relations. Your personal and business pages on Facebook provide a great forum for shout-outs. Don’t let them slide once a sponsored event or program is over. And let your business partners know what you’re doing—just because you see a good news announcement in your local paper doesn’t mean they’ve seen it.

2) Remember that it’s a constant education process to help those who live outside our sector recognize what important and vital work we do.

We can’t fault the business world for a lack of understanding about charitable work anymore than you can fault yourself for not understanding how to fix the oil spill. Consider yourself not only a marketing ambassador for your organization but one for the sector.

Get wise about the economic impact facts in our charitable sector. Sarasota County nonprofits, for instance, reported over $2.8 billion in assets and over $1.2 billion in revenue in 2008 alone. (Source: National Center for Charitable Statistics, January 2010) That’s a result of caring but inept people begging for money. Who’s the one to shed light on this? You. That’s right, it’s your job too.

3) If we’re going to be seen as professional, we have to stay ahead of the curve in professionalism and in our knowledge base.

All staff members, but particularly nonprofit leadership and communicators, represent the sector wherever they go – whether on the job or not. As the marketing ambassador for your organization, remind your staff of their personal brand (how they carry themselves, what they say about their work and your organization) and how it influences your nonprofit brand—and vice versa.

It’s not about “casual” versus “formal” in your virtual and geographic communities. It’s about aligning your actions and comments with respect and intelligence.

I think most of us do a great job of this. Our ongoing education can’t stop with awareness of the issues we care about most. Having one leg in that business world—with constant monitoring of the corporate news and trends—is critical. Communicating the intersections between the nonprofit and for-profit worlds is partly our responsibility. We have the skills to actively convey these connections to essential internal and external audiences. Leadership can determine where we go with them.

Nonprofits are taking (and historically have taken) a leading role in relationship building, the hallmark of success for any venture, public or private.  But it’s up to us to communicate our successes and strengths in a clear, consistent way, through all the grains of staff, board and program running through our organizations.

Powerful food for thought. Thank you, Susie.

What are your thoughts on how (and if) nonprofit marketers can best promote an accurate understanding of the strengths and power of the nonprofit sector and its people? Should we respond directly to slams such as Zuckerberg’s or take the high road  -showing rather than saying – our expertise and professionalism.

Please comment here. Thanks.