Why is pro bono such a pain in the butt?

Giving to charity is a nice thing to do. We all know this. But the reality is, it’s not always an easy thing to do. With over 54,000 registered charities in Australia, it’s increasingly hard to even choose who to support in the first place. Amid all the letters, emails, social media campaigns and clipboard-wielding zealots, how can we begin to decide which worthy cause is the worthiest of them all?


The decision isn’t any easier for those who choose to give back in a professional context. Whether you’re a designer, web developer or media planner, chances are you’ve been hit up by a charity for free ‘pro bono’ work in some way, shape or form – and you really can’t blame them for asking. After all, in such an unbelievably competitive sector, charities need all the help they can get to be seen and heard, and that’s traditionally the kind of expertise our industries provide.


Happily, many agencies (and individuals) are all too willing to oblige. We create campaigns, run fundraisers, design logos, and write emails designed to tug on the heartstrings – often staying back late, setting aside paying work, and calling in favours along the way. We do it because our bosses ask us to; because our global networks like us to, and because our shareholders expect us to.


But mostly I think we do it because we want to; because supporting charities makes us feel like our skills are being put to good use. It acts as a kind of karmic offset, balancing out all the times we’ve used those skills to flog childhood-obesity-inducing breakfast cereals and sketchy insurance policies.


Sometimes pro bono arrangements work just fine. Sometimes, the agency (or person) and the charity (or not-for-profit) just seem to click, and the project goes off without a hitch, leaving everyone feeling warm and fuzzy.


And sometimes, in spite of everyone’s best intentions, pro bono jobs become the stuff nightmares are made of. Charities feel confused, misled or pressured into doing stuff they’re not comfortable with. Agencies feel resentful and unappreciated. The ‘Board’ gets involved. Things go around and around. And basically everyone feels ripped off, and not very charitable towards each other at all.


But why does it happen? Where are we going wrong? In recent months, as I conducted a hunt for my own agency’s charity partner, this question played on my mind a lot. I found myself having many conversations with people on both sides of the pro bono fence. It was pretty eye-opening – and there were certainly a few recurring themes, which I’ll recap in case you’re curious.


For starters, agencies sometimes have an agenda.

I’ve seen plenty of cases where an agency ‘proactively’ approaches a charity with a ‘great idea’. Sometimes, this idea has been spawned by a genuine social conscience – and other times, the desire to win an award for creative genius. I’m not knocking proactivity per se, but I do tend to think that it’s often unwise to start with a creative idea – especially if you’re unfamiliar with a client and don’t even know what their problems actually are. It’s like turning up with hemorrhoid cream before you’ve asked how someone’s feeling. Kind of pre-emptive, and a little presumptuous.


Recently, a charity CEO recounted such a story to me, and explained that while they felt the agency’s proposed idea was wrong, they found is extremely difficult to say no. The fact that the idea was being presented as a ‘gift’ meant they felt compelled to accept it. In the end, the campaign (in her words) “did more harm than good” – a shame for the charity, but also for the agency who no doubt spent a good deal of time and effort making the campaign happen.


The point I think worth noting here is that agencies need to begin by asking what charities need, not rushing in with a pre-conceived solution. Just because it seems like a great idea doesn’t mean it’s the best move for that charity, at that time. And if you’re giving with an agenda, you’re not really being very generous at all.


Sometimes, charities expect way too much.

Hands up who has volunteered to do a small pro bono job, only to have it mysteriously grow into a snarling beast of terrifying proportions? It’s happened to me, and I know I’m not alone. And the reason (I think), is that sometimes we agency folk just don’t know when to say no – and our pro bono clients don’t know when to stop asking.


Some people in the not-for-profit sector are highly professional marketers who know their EPS from their DPS. Others are amateurs who do their absolute best – but who have never had the training or experience to understand what marketing and communications people really do. When you’re dealing with the latter, you’ll often find they ask a lot (#ScopeCreep). But this is almost always because they don’t know the magnitude of their requests, and we don’t always tell them!


Of course, there are also occasionally times that charity folks take advantage, and trade on the good natures of other people. In cases like these, it’s really important to establish boundaries (and an agreement) for the project up front, so a little favour doesn’t turn into the sacrifice of a firstborn.


It can just be a case of ‘the wrong fit’.

Most pro bono relationships hinge on a shared set of values. It seems trite but I absolutely believe it’s true. Yet, unfortunately, too little strategic thought goes into which charity an agency is going to support, and why.


These days, I don’t think it’s enough for a charity or cause to resonate with one or two people in an agency (usually the boss). It has to be a choice that’s in keeping with your organisational and cultural values as a whole; a cause that matters to everyone who’ll be expected to support it.


I’ve seen some corporations forge very successful partnerships with charities that were chosen by their staff (via a survey or by a committee). It also makes sense to support a cause that’s linked to your business interests or offering (for example, a restaurant supporting OzHarvest, or a solicitor providing pro bono legal support). There also needs to be a degree of compatibility in how the agency and charity work together, otherwise tension can quickly arise in the day-to-day.


The issue of alignment is one that Ashley Killeen, Head of Marketing at OzHarvest, agrees is key. “We are lucky enough to work with many talented teams from the agency world who often approach us directly as they are inspired by the work we do. Many of our long-standing agency relationships started in a pro bono capacity (some still continue), but are all based on a genuine love for the cause, which in turn inspires amazing creative work that can really make a difference.”


For agencies who aren’t sure how to find the right cause to support, there are now even ‘matchmakers’ at work, such as UnLtd. These guys connect the media, marketing and creative industries to charities across Australia, making it easier to give back in a way that has an impact.


“We know what a positive impact giving back can have,” says Chris Freel, CEO of UnLtd. “Aside from the obvious benefits to the charities, doing good is also good for business. There is nothing that brings a team together better than uniting behind a strong cause and working together to make a real difference that will dramatically improve people’s lives.”



It’s not treated as a ‘real’ job.

Pro bono jobs are intrinsically different to usual jobs because they’re not billed the same way – but in reality, they’re often treated as ‘different’ in many other regards too. Charity clients may find their job is constantly being de-prioritised, or that deadlines aren’t met, or that it’s given to the juniors to take care of. There can also be a stunning lack of clarity around what the expectations of both parties actually are.


None of this would fly with a regular paying client, so why do we do it with pro bono work? Stephen Mally, Fellow of Fundraising Institute Australia and Director of FundraisingForce, has a very simple suggestion to avoid such issues: “Whether an agency is conducting a pro bono or a paid engagement for a charitable organisation, a written agreement needs to be in place. This should outline the expectations of the arrangement, including the purpose of the arrangement, project deliverables, responsibilities of both parties, and a timeline for the project. Boundaries need to be in place to protect both parties.”


The bottom line? Pro bono jobs are as painful, or painless, as we make them.

The reasons why things get ugly in pro bono land can be complicated – it can be that we don’t communicate, that we don’t manage our expectations, that we’re too reactive, or that we’re just a bit slack. But whatever the case, it really doesn’t have to be this way. With a bit of effort, it’s possible for agencies and charities to forge really strong long-term relationships, where both parties feel recognised and rewarded – and where, in whatever tiny way, we’re changing the world for the better.


Emma Heath is the Founder & Director of copywriting consultancy Words By Nuance