Imagine a campaign that attracts international headlines (for all the right reasons), motivates your staff, brings weekly contact with leading politicians, journalists, and activists, and ultimately, introduces progressive change which benefits your country as a whole.
Sound too good to be true?
Well, the catch is the campaign isn’t paying you in full.
Instead, you’re doing the work at a discounted rate and providing some services on an entirely pro bono basis.
Since I established my agency, Alice PR, a little more than three years ago, I’ve had this experience—or variations of it— with several clients.
When I talk about the pro bono PR work we do, some people think I’m crazy:
You’re running a growing agency with an expanding staff and rising overhead, but you choose to give away services for free?
Business owners in other sectors struggle to comprehend why we would do such a thing.
So, why do we?
Since the start, we’ve recognized there are benefits to providing pro bono PR services.
Pro Bono PR Builds a Strong Agency Identity
We’ve worked on campaigns on reproductive rights, the gender pay gap and workplace equality, racism and integration, and access to education.
And we’re not shy about promoting these campaigns on our own website and social media.
Frequently, we’ve had new business leads comment on the strong “personality” they see when they visit our online profiles.
Our pro bono PR work marks us out as progressive, politically active, and unafraid to take a stance on sometimes difficult or divisive issues.
In the crowded PR marketplace, this can differentiate us from our competitors.
The type of organizations that approach us—both for paid and pro bono work—typically share our values and admire the fact we’ve been visibly involved in progressive campaigns.
It’s a virtuous circle. Pro bono PR work attracts paying clients aligned with our areas of interest and expertise.
And by doing pro bono PR work, we get to do more of the type of paid work we really like.
Pro Bono PR Campaigns Have Positive Change on Staff
Our team members have a shared interest in politics and social justice. And they genuinely enjoy campaigns which they feel contribute to the wider public good.
If staff members have strong links with a charity that needs support—or personal interest in helping a good cause—they are encouraged to put that forward as a potential pro bono project.
In annual performance reviews, staff-members frequently cite work they’ve done for pro bono or discounted clients among the highlights of the previous year.
Recently, I was at a round-table for PR leaders. And all those present bemoaned the difficulties in recruiting and retaining staff. Thankfully, that’s not a problem we’ve had to date.
Our team is hugely committed. They’re enthusiastic and passionate about their work. And they are excellent ambassadors for our agency.
I attribute this to the fact they take real pride in the campaigns they work on and can see visible results which positively change their lives and those of their families and friends.
Pro Bono PR Work Leads to New Business Opportunities
This shouldn’t be your underlying motivation, but it’s clear new business opportunities can emerge as a result of pro bono PR work.
In the early days of Alice PR (when it was just me), I took on several pro bono clients to help put the company’s name out there.
More recently, we worked on a campaign to repeal the Eighth Amendment of the Irish Constitution—an Amendment effectively outlawing abortion in Ireland in all but the most limiting of circumstances.
The campaign culminated in a referendum in which the “repeal” side saw a landslide victory.
Our involvement got us invitations to address conferences and political events in Ireland, and further afield.
And it positioned us as an agency with experience working on high-level political and human rights issues.
This has benefits for business development.
Meanwhile, through our work with smaller charities, we often collaborate with their corporate sponsors.
This puts us on the radar of large businesses that would not otherwise be aware of our existence.
Some have recommended us to other corporate clients, and we’ve won contracts as a result—priced at our regular fee.
Pro Bono PR Campaigns are Useful Learning Experiences
Finally, pro bono PR campaigns can play an important role in staff development.
When we agree to work with a client for a discounted (or no) fee, we often assign more junior members of our team to lead the project (with the client’s agreement, of course).
Usually, the timelines and expectations aren’t as demanding as with fee-paying clients.
So this means junior team-members can hone their skills and gain valuable experience in a less intimidating environment.
How to Make it Work
While there are undoubted benefits to offering pro bono services, you also need to be realistic.
The pro bono and discounted work we do is only a fraction of our activity overall. Without our core base of paying clients, we would be broke.
If your agency is considering taking on pro bono clients, my top tips are as follows:
- Analyze how much time you can devote to pro bono work. Monitor this on an ongoing basis. If it starts detracting from your fee-paying work, you need to reconsider your strategy.
- Use the same systems you use for fee-paying clients. Put a contract in place clearly setting out the terms of engagement. Agree on your PR plan and monitor and evaluate the results in the same way you do for all other clients.
- Measure the effectiveness of your pro bono work. And not just for the clients involved, but for your internal team and your public profile.
- Make sure you don’t become solely associated with low-cost or pro bono work.
- Be selective. Choose pro bono clients that make sense for your areas of interest and your available capacity. For some, this might mean helping a local soccer team with a fundraising campaign. For others, it might mean contributing expertise to an international political movement.
Many businesses wait to consider pro bono work until they’ve matured and reached high levels of profitability.
Then, they often do it as part of their CSR strategy, essentially to” give something back.”
However, we don’t see any reason to wait.
Even as a young company, we’ve been able to balance pro bono and fee-paying work and use it to grow our reputation–and our client base.
When done in a strategic and measurable way, pro bono PR work can lead to great things.