Monday, March 2, 2009

Pro Bono - a nasty sting?

Charities love to get stuff for free. When I was a new fundraiser, fresh out of college in 1992, I rang up Jane Tewson - founder of Charity Projects / Comic Relief in the mid 80s. I told her I wanted to be a fundraiser, and asked if I could visit her for tips. She accepted and I think it would have been my second ever trip to the big city (London) was to see her.

It was a great, inspiring day and one of the things she told me was that Charity Projects didn't pay for anything. They had this team of scroungers who got stuff to keep the place running. A great example was the 180 toilet rolls stacked outside the loos that someone had donated.

Over the years she has set up other charities - including some here in Australia - and been involved in organisations connected with NGOs, such as an organisation that measures corporate social responsibility.

Since meeting Jane then I have not seen any, significant successful pro bono (free) services that genuinely helps charities - except for some well run volunteer programs.

Significant pro bono services that I have come across as a fundraiser, and then as a supplier tend to fall into three categories:

* Marketing / PR / advertising creative
For example: We will design some posters for you

* Marketing / PR / advertising media
For example: We have a load of spots at train stations you can have for free

* Sales opportunities
For example: You donors will want to buy our insurance, and we give you x%

The number of times charities talk to me really excited about a free opportunity is overwhelming. But, a cold hard look at it afterwards shows that the whole thing was a waste of time. After the event (and the agency has won it's award) the charity usually says 'it didn't work - but at least it was free!'

But they are wrong.

It wasn't. The time taken negotiating, approving copy, ensuring IP rights* are maintained etc is all expensive. A free DM appeal that raises $100,000 is not as good as a paid for one that costs $50,000 and raises $250,000.

Or even if it was not instead of another activity it will have cost time. Most fundraisers don't call all their top donors because they have not got time. There is no doubt that those half dozen calls not made would have raised more.

If someone you offers you something for free, remember,

if it seems too good to be true, it is.

With companies suffering losses in work, some will be offering their services to charities for free. If they do, think it through carefully and make sure you are in charge of the project, with clear goals, expectations and a contract.

I am sure there are good pro bono things out there - I have just never seen a good example since Comic Relief - and even then, maybe they would have raised more if people were calling donors for money, instead of toilet roll?



googs said...

totally agree - and usually it is something you were never prepared to ever pay for, meaning is it really a benefit? Charities jump onto anything that is free never thinking if it is actually providing benefit (or harm) to their organisation

'How can we not do it? Its free!'

Anonymous said...

Hi Sean

Generally I agree with your comments. Particularly marketing/advertising agengcies.

They want to:

1: Win an award
2: Demonstrate to there staff that after flogging bodgy credit card deals they really are good people after all.
3:Give their creative people a chance to go all crazy on someone's organisation with stuff they think a paying client won't buy.

1: They get all upset becuae you point out their creative trashes your brand. "But we are doing it for free" you'll hear.
2: Get up on stage to collect their award while you are at the office wondering where it all went wrong.
3: Drop you like a sack of soiled unmentionables when commerical work picks up again.

But there is one area where pro bono works becasue they know how to do it. Each year a large law firm or two gives my org a budget of certain number of hours (several tens of thousands of dollars of work) and then treats us like any other client. Works great. Good or looking at things like bodgy agreemnts from service provider.

Most large law firms have a Pro bono department. The only type of pro bono I've seen consistantly work.

Roewen said...

Yes, the organisation where I have worked for the past seven years has enjoyed overall exceptionally useful pro bono legal services from one of Australia's large commercial law firms, saving hundreds of thousands of $. Along the way, staff have become donors as well.

Anonymous said...

I liked Jeff Brooks idea of paying suppliers to work for you and then them giving your organisation the money you paid them back as a donation so the work that needs doing is still a priority.

'Sean is always learning' said...

Leisl, that is a great point - and one in my latest Agitator article; however care must be taken to make sure the tax authority is OK with the plan... It could be seen as a tax dodge if it was agreed in advance depending on local laws.

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