Pro Bono: “Especially for the Public Good” (Merriam-Webster)

The dictionary definition of pro bono fits well with non-profit organizations, which themselves are also for “the public good,” according to the IRS description of how they must be created and operated. And the good, in the case of pro bono work, is what countless non-profit organizations have received from generous businesses and firms as contributions of legal work, accounting, printing, and much more—all of which help to reduce operating and special expenses the organizations would ordinarily need to pay, even to help make funds available for things they would like to do, but could not otherwise afford. The result is to help relieve the strain on the requirements of their annual fund and other fund-raising campaigns.

Much of the pro bono work donated to non-profits by businesses and firms is direct and uncomplicated. Such work can be evaluated in terms of making exacting legal decisions, having accredited year-end audits, producing workable long-range plans, executing successful searches to fill management staff positions, etc.

Free But Maybe Not Acceptable

However, it is another matter entirely when it comes to pro bono work requiring creativity, such as art, design and writing: when the pro bono work is for a non-profit organization’s annual report, mission-oriented institutional publications, marketing and PR publications, other media (such as radio and television, website development), and especially for the materials and communication resources which drive fund-raising campaigns. All of these pro bono services are the direct result of the creative and artistic minds of others from advertising and related agencies, whose creative personnel usually are not closely enough associated with a non-profit organization to know its core values, mission, and general “face and voice.”

Therefore, while non-profits are favored with the offer of such generous gifts, there must be a clear understanding in effect with such pro bono collaborations in order to avoid the production of work that could be counter to what the organizations expect and want.

The Challenge Is to Create the Fitting
Fund-Raising “Message”

This likely disparity between commercial pro bono donors and non-profit organizations in their respective thinking, understanding and execution of such work is especially prevalent when it comes to fund-raising communications and publications. That’s because non-profit fund-raising is a subjective science of sorts. That apparent contradiction is appropriate when it comes to an organization working to convince people to give it money. The “marketplace” for voluntary giving, based on donors contributing to satisfy their personal concerns and to support a community asset, is much different from the marketplace in which customers look for products at the best price and quality. It is the latter group with which advertising, marketing, and PR firms are far more knowledgeable, experienced, and comfortable: it is their business to know their paying clients, or get to know them, as dictated by the terms of their contracts.

Assessments are made with thoroughness, the understanding of the project’s purpose is mutual, and then the creative work begins. With non-profits, however, it’s generally not as readily a good fit between how the agency sees it and how the non-profit wants it. That’s because more often than not, such associations come about quickly, on an ad hoc basis, and the creative work begins without the initial and comprehensive groundwork as always agreed upon with paying clients.

Potential Risks Associated with
Pro Bono Fund-Raising Services

I am as appreciative and grateful as anyone can be for the generosity of others—so that I never (almost never) “look a gift horse in the mouth.” But when it comes to the donation of creative services from a generous and well-meaning advertising, marketing, or PR agency, from my experience, and from that of others I have known, I suggest that you be alert to the following possible realities:

  • Pro bono almost always involves only the contribution of creative time and talent of the agency’s staff. It rarely—if ever—accounts for the contribution of other charges they incur and must pay to outside sources for services they do for you, but do not have “in-house.” Examples might include the taking of photographs, video, printing, typesetting, page-making, etc. Oftentimes those charges are later presented to the recipient charity for payment. They may come as a surprise, and those expenses can be significantly high. You must have an understanding upfront regarding such outside services contracted by the agency on your behalf.
  • Your pro bono work as scheduled by the agency will surely be regularly moved lower in priority as comparison to the demands of the agency’s paying clients. This is simply something you will need to accept without question, thus to make your planning and production schedule as flexible as possible, so you don’t miss your own deadlines.
  • Unlike a paying client, your pro bono arrangement could likely, at some time, place you in an uncomfortable and possibly embarrassing position, should you not approve in some way of the free work being done for you. As a pro bono recipient, you will be expected to accept what you get.

A Time When We Did Reject the Work
Though it Was Not Easy

One such personal experience involved a fine group of creative folks at a local advertising agency that had been at work for weeks on a pro bono project to give my organization a new Annual Fund Campaign slogan and logo. Time and again we politely asked for a “peek” at what they were doing. Bless them, but they were so excited about the project that they wanted to surprise us at the end of their work. It finally came to the “Ta Da” presentation day, and sure enough, there was indeed a great surprise—the finished work was unacceptable to us. Because we had no ongoing evaluation, the agency unfortunately entirely missed the point of our campaign’s mission and message. They meant well, but their rendition simply did not work. We felt bad about this situation, and they were upset and disappointed. We could never go back to them again.

A Time When We Simply Had No Choice
But to Accept What We Got

Different from when you solicit such creative work, and from when it is volunteered to you by creative agencies, is the more politically-charged situation when a prominent and influential corporate board member personally arranges a collaboration. Most of the time this is with the Marketing/Communications/PR firm that she or he engages to do the corporation’s image making and marketing work. Here you may very well have some idea of the scope and content of the work being done on an ongoing basis to make some evaluation. However, should you be less than pleased with the work at the beginning, and even in midstream, it becomes very hard and very risky to be openly critical or even suggest a significant change in order to better suit your organization. Now you have an important board member with whom you must contend—who made the arrangement for you in the first place. That board member could be displeased or impatient with you and even embarrassed that you questioned the work she or he arranged as a donation. I was directly involved in one such situation with The Cleveland Orchestra.

For our new major capital/endowment campaign, a board member recruited his corporation’s PR agency to design and write our fund-raising campaign brochure. The covers of such publications are always key to attracting and holding interest strong and long enough for readers to want to go to the inside pages. From the beginning of this pro bono work, we were not enamored with the cover rendition–and other elements—promoted by the agency. But we could say little, with our board member looking on approvingly and expecting us to react in the same way. The work proceeded mostly according to the agency’s wishes.

The final version of the campaign brochure had a black and white cover photo of the full complement of our 105 orchestra members, the ladies is gowns, and the men arrayed in their tuxedos, all positioned in tiers on the front steps of our concert hall. Shortly after, as we began seeking the key major leadership gifts necessary for such campaigns, I was in the company of our Campaign Chairman and a member of the committee, sitting across from a prospect they were going to ask for a contribution of $500,000. When the time was right, the Chairman handed the prospect his copy of the new brochure. The prospect gazed at the front cover for a time with no hint of expression. Then, he exploded with a loud and long laugh, looking up at us shocked solicitors, and said, “This looks like a picture of the serving staff of the World’s largest French restaurant.” So much for creativity.

We were shaken from our otherwise organized solicitation course by this prospect’s response, and it took us several minutes to get back on track and be serious about some very serious money. He did eventually give his half-million dollars to the campaign. Needless to say, it was not due to the gripping and compelling campaign brochure we hoped for, but which he obviously did not see that way. I can tell you that from then on, any time any of us handed out that brochure to other prospects, we held our collective breaths.

Ways to Minimize the Risks

An organization can greatly minimize the risks associated with pro bono creative work by approaching the arrangement as a true business relationship which should be entered into with both partners agreeing (preferably in writing) on what needs to be accomplished. This would include all deadlines, clear-cut responsibilities, ongoing evaluations—and performance outcomes. However, when push comes to shove, and your pro bono donor acquires a new and major paying client, I don’t think that there would be a question in anyone’s mind as to who comes first. Especially in view of the fact that your pro bono needs are provided “for free.”

In Summary

I hasten to reiterate my true appreciation and high regard for pro bono support given by generous, caring and well-intentioned creative agencies. But evaluating donated creativity is a very subjective undertaking, unlike the clearly defined nature of most other kinds of contributions made to non-profit organizations.

We owe it to our organizations and to our generous creative agency benefactors to look long and hard at the real risks of pro bono associations compared to the mutual benefits we may accrue. Though we talked mainly about the possible consequences for our organization with failed creative pro bono work, let us also be keenly aware that such disappointments—even disasters—can be damaging to the good reputation of our agency friends as well.

Appreciate and trust—but keep up-to-the-minute with what is being done on your organization’s behalf.