benefits of pro bono work for PR pros

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Public relations professionals can benefit in many ways from donating their services pro bono – that is, at no cost — to not-for-profit organizations. While lawyers typically come to mind when people think of pro bono work, both PR agencies and individual PR consultants frequently help nonprofits or other charitable causes. After all, nonprofits need to publicize how they hope to solve problems or fulfill their missions. To clarify, pro bono work means providing specialized PR expertise and differs from performing non-specialized volunteer work.

During the Covid-19 epidemic, some PR agencies have offered free consultations to small businesses and pro bono news writing and distribution services.  PR organizations have also worked to promote reliable information and counter Covid-19 misinformation. For instance, APCO Worldwide created a Coronavirus Hub filled with the latest research and important health resources.

In providing pro bono PR services, some agencies do not charge for their services, but pass through service costs they incur, such as the cost of news release distributions. Others donate their time and also absorb out-of-pocket cost of PR services. Both the agency and the organization should have an upfront and detailed understanding of their arrangement, preferably in writing. The agreement should include a term of service.

These are seven ways PR agencies, staff of PR departments and PR consultants working on their own can benefit from performing pro bono work.

Expand your network. You’ll probably meet business professionals and community leaders when you serve on a nonprofit’s committee or board of directors. By developing relationships with them and demonstrating your skills and talents, you can find new contacts and recommendations that lead to securing new clients. In addition, PR pros and agencies can win favorable publicity if the nonprofit publically thanks them on social media, on its website or its event-related materials. To increase the chances of finding leads to new clients, help nonprofits or causes that fit with your targeted sector.

New business opportunities. Pro bono work can lead to new clients, although that should not be its primary motivation. Alice PR worked on a campaign to repeal Ireland’s Eighth Amendment that outlawed most abortions. After a referendum prompted repeal of the law, the PR agency received invitations to address conferences and political events in Ireland and elsewhere, writes Martina Quinn, the agency’s founder and managing director, in Spins Sucks.

Expand into new markets. Working with a pro bono client just outside your niche can help you expand into a new area. For instance, if your niche is sports, you could perform pro bono work for the Little League organization in your community.

Sharpen or learn new skills. Many PR players often perform the same tasks during their daily and weekly routines. PR bono work can allow you to expand outside your routine and try the latest tools, strategies and techniques. For instance, you may wish to gain experience in media monitoring and measurement, social media marketing, planning events, or building WordPress websites. If your day job doesn’t involve those activities, you can practice them during pro bono work.

“Pro bono work may provide you with an opportunity to take on something totally new and develop a new skill,” writes PR consultant Tim O’Brien of O’Brien Communications in Muck Rack. “Because the beneficiary organization isn’t paying you, there is less risk on their part for you to learn something new in a real-world setting.”

Leadership experience for younger staff. Junior staff members may not be ready to manage a paying client on their own, but they can safely learn about client service and gain confidence with a pro bono client.

Fulfill Community Obligations. Most all business professionals try to contribute to their community to make it better. Some serve as coaches in youth sports leagues; others serve as leaders in scouting; others help cultural organizations; others serve on government committees or boards. All are worthwhile, but providing pro bono professional services is probably the most valuable service you can provide to your community. PR, marketing, social media, and event planning services are needed by most every non-profit organization in town.

Gratification. Pro bono work provides a sense of satisfaction from knowing you made a difference in your community. Personnel at PR agencies gain a sense of teamwork by rallying around a common cause. The sense of gratification boosts employee morale and helps attract and retain talent. Mueller Communications invested more than 1,372 work hours into nonprofits, with its employees serving on 21 boards of directors at local Milwaukee organizations.

“Employees love that they get paid to help support organizations that make a difference in their communities,” James Madlom, Mueller Communications partner and COO, told PR News.

How to Select and Conduct Pro Bono PR Work

Although pro bono accounts may cause less stress, they require all the attention and dedication that’s required to succeed on business accounts. Poor reviews or lackluster publicity will ultimately harm your attempts to build your reputation or gain new paying clients.

Tackle pro bono work with the same zest as fee-paying accounts. Create a contract that sets terms, develop a PR plan and track results with a media monitoring and measurement service. Also consult your tax accountant, as pro bono work may lead to tax deductions.

Carefully consider which causes to take on as pro bono accounts, and avoid becoming known only for pro bono or low-cost work, PR veterans urge.

Before taking on a pro bono client, consider:

  • how the nonprofit’s mission relates to your agency’s goals,
  • what charitable objectives enthuse you and your team the most,
  • how much time you can dedicate to pro bono work.

Continue to monitor time dedicated to pro bono accounts, and reconsider your strategy if it detracts from fee-paying work, Quinn adds.

Some businesses don’t offer pro bono work until they’ve reached a high level of profitability; Alice PR didn’t see a 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,” Quinn says. “When done in a strategic and measurable way, pro bono PR work can lead to great things.”

Bottom Line: PR agencies, PR solo entrepreneurs and staff of PR departments can gain many benefits from offering their services to nonprofits without charge. To develop beneficial relationships, it’s crucial to work with causes you believe in. Even though those accounts provide no income, it’s essential for PR pros to put in the effort needed for an effective campaign.

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This article was first published on Feb. 2, 2018, and updated on June 9, 2020.