Can adland do pro bono work without pain?
In this guest post, Ben Carter takes issue with Mumbrella’s question “How rich does a not-for-profit organisation need to be before they stop asking for pro bono work?’, and suggests a better question is whether Adland and not-for-profit organisations can ever form a partnership which doesn’t end in bitterness.
Despite best intentions, the answer is often a big fat no unless the parties can resolve the fundamental mutual misunderstanding highlighted by the recent article about youth mental health foundation headspace, and the response by many Mumbrella readers.
The following is my take on the steps needed for agencies and NFPs to form a more beautiful friendship:First, get real. All government funding is tied, via super strict contracts, to direct service provision. NFP’s are not ungrateful for ad agency pro bono contributions or unaware of the importance of their brand and reputation – it’s just that they have zero ability to divert government grants to their marketing budgets.
Any attempt to do so would risk future funding and the services vulnerable people in our community need. Any freedom NFPs currently have is about to be further squeezed by yet another layer of red tape in the shape of the Federal Government’s proposed NFP regulator.
Second, don’t fall prey to the bizarre (and disturbingly common) viewpoint that NFP’s can cull a few lavishly well paid managers to pay for agency services. Most have an incredibly lean management structures and remuneration even for the most senior staff is a comparative pittance, which is why community services are outsourced to NFPs in the first place.
Third, don’t let the fog of good will that envelopes agencies and NFPs when they initially form a partnership distract them from being crystal clear about their expectations.
NFPs need to say it how it is – there is no way they will ever have the cash to pay full agency fees. I’m not saying that agencies are asking them to in the first instance if at all, but many in adland think their good turn deserves another and NFPs are reluctant to disagree. The result can be the expectation that, at some point in the future, when the NFP is cashed up they will remember their generous partners at the agency.
Such thinking will poison the relationship from the start. For the reasons stated above, NFPs can’t make this dream come true.
NFPs need to be especially ethical in their conduct toward small and SME agencies with big hearts. The big agencies aren’t heartless but so often it’s the smaller guys who give so much and feel hurt when they imagine the NFP is deliberately not showing their appreciation in more prosperous times.
Discount fee arrangements can also be a trap as NFPs can rarely afford even cut rates on an ongoing basis and unrealistic expectations can easily be created. Some agencies end up factoring in the cash flow and the pro bono spirit is lost. Less senior staff work on the account but NFPs rarely feel able to complain even when the standard of work drops so they lose precious funds for a less than ideal outcome.
Far better to channel passion for a good cause into genuinely pro bono NFP relationships, but NFPs should consider changing their pro bono partnership model to include a panel of agencies. This would result in a better quality and quantity of pro bono work as the hard work would not fall to a single agency every time.
It’s sometimes easy for overstretched NFPs to forget that ad agency staff are also committed to assisting the disadvantaged and that they channel this commitment through their pro bono work. Clear communication and managing expectations is the least they can do to show they value agency support.
An industry body like the Communications Council could and should also get its teeth into this issue. They could develop standard pro bono policies and agreements for agencies. More importantly, they should encourage the NFP sector to include budget for advertising in funding submissions and lobby the government to promote the importance of advertising for successful NFP service delivery.
Ben Carter is a senior public affairs professional. Recently Director Marketing & Membership with ACCI, his experience includes UnitingCare and the Federal Government.