A Word to Wise Nonprofits: Avoid the Pro Bono Trap

Posted on September 13, 2010. Filed under: Communications, Jazz, Marketing, Nonprofit, Not-for-profit, Public Relations Marketing, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , |

The music accompanying this post is about the inspiration I’ve received from everyone I’ve ever met who has committed to a career in the nonprofit sector. I get chills and tears listening to the lyrics of “If I Ruled the World” by Leslie Bricusse and sung here by the spectacular Tony Bennett.

Over the years, I’ve worked with many nonprofits on their marketing and PR programs. The work that nonprofits do is essential to meeting our society’s needs in ways that neither the government nor the private sector can do as well. I consider having non-profit clients a very meaningful part of my practice. I’m writing this post not to be in any way self-serving, but because we need our nonprofits to succeed more than ever!

Although my fees for nonprofits are at a lower rate than for commercial clients, I do not provide my professional services pro bono. I will volunteer in many other ways. However, I believe that marketing is such a mission critical function that I do nonprofit clients no favor by offering a pro bono arrangement. This is a drum I’ve been beating since the stock market crash of 1987 and again in the recessionary aftermath of 9/11.

The topic came rushing back to mind again last week when a respected colleague of mine told me that she had agreed to provide some pro bono web and graphic design services to a local arts group. However, she gave the executive director one condition: No deadlines. She would have to implement the project when she had time, as she owed first priority to her paying clients. This is reality.

And that, my nonprofit friends, is the pro bono trap. You may need a service performed pronto to meet a grant deadline or to announce an important fundraising event. But as the adage warns, “Beggars can’t be choosers.”

When the economy went into the tank in late 2008, many nonprofits immediately cut back or completely curtailed their paid marketing and development activities. So did many for-profit companies to be clear.

During 2009, there were many out-of-work marketers offering free help as a way to keep busy, keep their portfolios fresh or reposition themselves. Admirable that they wanted to turn lemons into lemonade for a good cause.

In 2010, many have either gotten permanent jobs, or transformed themselves into consultants with paying clients.

 As the economy improves, nonprofits that have been relying on board members and volunteers to get the word out about their missions, their successes and their funding needs may very well find that they’ve fallen dangerously behind. Pro bono services are generally provided piecemeal in the best of cases. Overall or longer term strategy takes a back seat.

In addition, the world of marketing and PR has changed drastically in the past couple of years. Just putting up a Facebook page – as some organizations have done – does not substitute for preparing to attract meaningful support using online channels. But doing some serious planning and working with professionals – in- or out-of-house – on execution can create never-before-possible efficiencies of scale.

Savvy nonprofit Executive Directors/CEOs need to make a strong case to their boards of directors that marketing is a specialized skill that can’t just be dumped on a volunteer or junior staffer to ‘make it happen’. It goes hand-in-hand with successful development efforts and needs to be in the budget at a serious level every year.

Likewise, foundations and other grantors must recognize that solid and appropriate marketing can help nonprofits leverage funding and improve service to their constituents. Marketing grants need to be more numerous and more generous.

Mind you, I’m not talking about over-the-top direct mail campaigns that, frankly, I find offensive and have written about in the past. Just don’t regard marketing as a frill. Nothing could be farther from reality. As the funding pie shrinks, when it comes to generating revenue it’s the NFP that thinks and acts like a business that will survive to help those who need its services.

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