Monday, May 31, 2010

Pro Bono Public Relations for Nonprofits: 7 Questions Agencies Ask (Part 2)

These are some of the questions a public relations agency will consider in accepting a pro bono client. Other questions were in last week’s blog.

5. Do the nonprofit respect my skills? For example, if I tell them that I need specific information for a press release or to pitch a story, will they believe me? Placing stories is not a matter of calling up a reporter and saying, “I have a good story; come on over tomorrow at 3.” A reporter or editor needs facts. No PR firm wants to issue press releases that don’t meet professional standards, even for a very deserving charity. Questions from people trying to understand the process and suggestions are always welcome. But when a nonprofit seeks my help and then declines to follow my advice, it’s time for a change. A city council member I know said it best: “There are all sorts of people who want my advice for free. Why should I keep meeting with people who never take it?”

6. Does the nonprofit have a staff member or volunteer who will coordinate requests for services and approvals and mediate between different opinions on what the press release should say and what press releases are needed? This is a necessity to keep costs under control (for paying clients, too).

7. Are the nonprofit’s board members and major donors likely to refer paying clients to me? If they develop a larger budget, are they going to start paying me or will they give the account to the vice president’s brother, who was too busy to do it pro bono? The first question should never be the main criteria, but referrals of paying clients definitely help cement a relationship. And my firm and many of my colleagues can tell stories of times that we’ve been competent enough to do the work when a nonprofit that needed free help, but not competent enough once they developed a budget.

You may be surprised that I have not focused on whether the agency supports the cause. That’s a given, but I’ve rarely met a charity I didn’t like. The more important question usually becomes where donated time can do the most good, and the working relationship is often the biggest factor in determining that.

Finally, the question is whether the agency can afford the time. Almost all public relations agencies, including mine, believe in donating some professional help. But there is a cost. We all know that if we go overboard on pro bono work, we’re likely to end up with an unsuccessful business and the ability to help no one. So please remember that if you ask for help, you are almost always asking for a four- or five-figure donation – and treat the prospective donor accordingly.

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