Pro Bono Done Right: Questioning What Matters

Mike McDougall
Mike McDougall

It’s one of those conversations that starts casually, but that can quickly become all consuming if you’re not prepared. You’ve been there before. A close friend, a colleague, client or even that guy you just met 20 minutes ago at the reception moves in close, places a hand on your shoulder and asks if you could help him out. It won’t take much time. It’ll be easy for a real professional like you. It’s just some pro bono project.

Do you run? Ask to talk a little more about it? Or manage to stammer some sort of “um, I’m sure we can do something” to, you hope, push the conversation—if not the person making the request—into a forgotten corner?

As senior PR professionals who take great pride in the philanthropic pursuits we develop for our clients, we’re typically inadequate when selecting the “right” pro bono challenges for our own teams.

The results are sub-optimal outcomes, frustrated teams and a vicious circle of similar projects whose gravitational pull keeps you spinning for years.

Stop the swirling, and get smart about choosing your pro bono portfolio.

Ask a few questions to get on track.

Is the project aligned with your greater corporate social responsibility platform? One-offs that don’t ladder up to a cause for which you’ve pledged broader support do more than just pull resources away from what matters. They also confuse your colleagues and even the community about what you stand for.

Your CSR platform should serve as the yardstick of what passes muster, and what should be politely declined. Say yes to saying no.

Smart pro bono work demands that you and your team only expend unallocated hours—a concept that certainly differs from organization to organization.

Yet in the absence of a definition for “unallocated,” an employee may choose pro bono over the “right” option simply because it’s more appealing or at the top of the pile. Set a standard.

And as long as you’re defining available hours, put a governor on that time. Sure, many of us would love to let the clock spin on pro bono needs that have the power to change communities and better the lives of those around us. But not all unallocated hours should be devoted to pro bono efforts.

Don’t forget business development, training and even the allowance for unstructured “think” time. Creating expectations before you take on a new program will help ensure your time mix remains reasonable.

Do you and your team have any glaring gaps in experience? Pro bono is a fertile training ground to create and nurture those skills, as long as you’ve chosen a pertinent challenge. Maybe you’re trying to build capabilities in a vertical market, or in a particular practice area. Smart pro bono gives you those shots.

Similarly, pro bono is ripe territory for experimentation. Perhaps there’s a new concept you’ve been eager to move from the discovery bench to the marketplace or a new technology that shows promise, but still requires your own beta assessment.

Find a pro bono challenge to which those could be applied.

Do you want to include partners in the PR endeavor? Why artificially limit your reach? Don’t confine smart pro bono planning to your immediate team. Involve partners. Are there vendors that you’ve been looking to evaluate?

Ask them to show their mettle through a contribution to a pro bono plan.

But don’t recoil if they decline; the assignment will have to be a “smart” fit for the vendor as well.

This extension concept can also encompass vendors, especially companies that would experience little additional financial burden by turning on a suite of applications for pro bono use.

Not only will the entire effort benefit from enhanced capabilities with a lower cost base, but so, too, will the group that you tapped to put some skin in the game.

Of course, none of this can be possible without sharing clear, concise and documented guidelines and expectations with the organization you’re representing.

Be up front with them—receiving top-flight thinking and execution at no or little cost requires some barter.

So be bold. Be strategic. And be smart. Done wrong, pro bono becomes a drag on your own performance and eventually dulls your passion. But done right, it reaps rewards for everyone involved. PRN


Mike McDougall is president of McDougall Communications. He can be reached at or via Twitter: @McDougallPR.

This article appeared in the June 24 issue of PR News. Subscribe to PR News today to receive weekly comprehensive coverage of the most fundamental PR topics from visual storytelling to crisis management to media training.