The Benefits of Pro Bono and Nonprofit PR Clients

The day-to-day of communications work can wear on a practitioner, particularly in our present-day coronavirus crisis. For respite or to reinvigorate creativity, PR pros can look to pro bono work. The benefits can reverberate beyond office hours, opening a path to the joy of giving back.

And the possibilities for pro bono work can be found almost anywhere, if you just open your eyes and take a look around. For Dini von Mueffling, founder and CEO of Dini von Mueffling Communications, attending a fundraiser for Sandy Hook Promise (SHP) at a friend’s house opened the door to one of her most impactful partnerships. After listening to Nicole Hockley, a co-founder and managing director of SHP, speak of losing her child Dylan in the tragedy, von Mueffling found herself standing in front of Hockley. She volunteered to help.  

In an article for NextTribe.com, von Mueffling, a PRNEWS Top Women in PR honoree, wrote, “I...asked who was doing her PR and (Nicole) said, 'You’re looking at her,'" von Mueffling said. “The fact that Nicole had not crawled into bed and stayed there after Dylan was murdered showed such enormous strength. I wanted to help her in any way I could.” 

SHP eventually converted to a paying client. 

“After they saw what we were able to accomplish for them, they realized it made sense to hire us...now they are what I call a low bono client.”

We looked at the ways pro bono PR work can benefit not only the clients being served, but the well-being and skill set of practitioners as well. As of March 23, 2020, we also included an update on several organizations reaching out to help others through pro bono communications during the Coronavirus crisis.

Expanding a Skillset

Red Havas sees pro bono work as a way for employees to strengthen their creativity and knowledge of PR. 

“Pro bono work is one of the most valuable ways we can lend our skills, knowledge and relationships to benefit our local communities,” said Linda Descano, EVP.  "Pro bono work often puts us in front of the nonprofit's executive team and board to show them our capabilities and strengths.” 

Red Havas works with Safe and Sound Schools, a national nonprofit that provides research-based tools and services for crisis prevention, response and recovery to help protect schools and students. Havas staff had an opportunity to provide block-and-tackle PR support. At first it was drafting press releases and conducting media outreach. Eventually, Red Havas’ role shifted to one of strategic counsel and supporting key milestone moments.

Pro Bono Guidelines

If you plan on taking on pro bono clients, the preparation and expectations are similar to working with a paid client. Descano of Havas advises looking at the pro bono organization's strategy holistically. How does it relate to your agency and interests? 

“A good first step is to think through how much time you can dedicate to pro bono accounts, what your objective is and what your team is passionate about and wants to work on,” she said.  “Once you have those parameters in mind, then consider reaching out to community foundations or organizations that work with nonprofits in your area. They may be best positioned to help identify organizations in need." Say your team is passionate about fashion. You may want to reach out to local business organizations and start-up accelerators to find emerging fashion designers needing support.

Descano also noted treating a pro bono campaign the same as a paid one. 

“We prepare and execute a scope of work that outlines what services we will provide, who will be working on the account, what the key deliverables will be, how we will manage the account, and the value of the services we are contributing,” she said.

Another tip: consult your accountant. Pro bono work for a nonprofit may allow for a tax deduction.

Employee Investment and Morale

A well-established pro bono tradition can help recruit fresh talent. In 2019, Mueller Communications invested more than 1,372 work hours into nonprofits. Team members served on 21 boards of directors at local Milwaukee organizations.

James Madlom, partner and COO, said, “Employees love that they get paid to help support organizations that make a difference in their communities." 

In 2019 the agency took its pro bono commitment another step.  

“We have always helped select and support non-profit organizations as a firm, often providing billable credit for staff,” Madlom said. “But, we also wanted to find a way to increase ownership of our pro bono opportunities. We instituted a civic engagement policy that provides a way for each staff member to select the non-profit of their choosing to work on for billable credit."

Mueller helps staff find a nonprofit that matches their passion, if they don’t already have a connection. It's a win-win. "Employees know that they are making a difference through their work, and that the firm supports the causes that they are passionate about.”

Connecting With Community

One of the most obvious benefits of pro bono work includes the one-on-one connections to the community. No matter how large an agency, outreach can play an important role when it comes to what is going on just outside the office door. 

Steven Rubenstein, president of strategic communications firm RUBENSTEIN, as well as chairman of the Association for a Better New York (ABNY), a group of business, labor, non-profit and political leaders, announced a unique pro bono PR pop-up project for the 2020 Census. The ABNY-funded pop-up supports community-based organizations in hard-to-count communities.

The Census, Rubenstein said, is one of the most critical issues facing NYC. An accurate Census translates into money for schools, healthcare and neighborhoods, as well as representation in congress. The key challenge in getting people to fill out a Census form is public awareness. Community-based organizations are the best way to reach hard-to-count communities.

“We need to make sure that all New Yorkers are counted in the 2020 Census so that our communities get the money and the representation they deserve,” Rubenstein added. “Local nonprofits are the most trusted messengers in hard-to-count communities, and a critical part of achieving an accurate count. ABNY is committed to providing tools, resources, and advice to help these organizations in their communications efforts.”

NYC community-based organizations can apply for support from the pop-up here and implement a project before June 30. 

Providing Guidance During the Coronavirus Crisis

Depending on an agency or individual's strengths, many are taking the opportunity to reach out and contribute in whatever way they can to help those with communications needs during this crisis.

Agencies like KWT Global and Swordfish Communications are offering free services to those in need of crisis communications services. KWT Global is making its Special Situations/Crisis Communications team available to nonprofits in need of communications support and will provide advice, guidance and content support on a first come, first served basis to help these organizations effectively communicate key health and safety messaging to critical stakeholders. Swordfish will provide free publicity services for healthcare professionals and organizations that need to distribute vital coronavirus information to the public.

"Many of these organizations have limited resources and in-house capabilities to manage an unprecedented situation like COVID-19," said Aaron Kwittken, CEO, KWT Global, in a statement. "As a purpose-driven agency, we feel compelled to offer our support...in need of communications services, from messaging guidance to determining the best ways to convey difficult decisions such as delays, closures or cancellations."

Influencer agencies are also doing their part to get the word out. Takumi is currently developing two pro-bono influencer campaigns which will begin rolling out this week across the U.S. and Europe on Instagram and TikTok. These campaigns are designed to tap into the power of influencers to amplify critical messages, and will revolve around the following concepts: 

  • The #safehands campaign will help scale WHO’s information on how to properly wash hands and to promote positive behaviors to help slow the spread
  • Takumi designed its own initiative to protect mental health and promote mindfulness amid the anxiety, misinformation and negativity surrounding this pandemic.

Agencies and PR organizations are also using this time to create content hubs, providing clients and users with important communications resources and information to prevent the spread of misinformation. APCO Worldwide launched a Coronavirus Hub including data-driven insights, as well as several informational webinars and a look at their crisis communications simulator.