How rich do you have to be before you stop asking for pro bono?

I’m sure that the government-funded youth mental health foundation Headspace does good work.

With $300m worth of Commonwealth Government funding along with state funding too, you’d certainly hope so.

But I wonder how well funded a not-for-profit organisation should be before it can no longer justify asking its agencies to work for free?

Yes, creative agencies do pro bono work as they get to do interesting projects, give something back and win awards.

But the executives for these organisations aren’t working for free. I wonder if the organisations also face a case of getting what they pay for. Sometimes good advertising is actually worth investing in.

Tim Burrowes


  1. goodone
    31 Oct 12
    1:31 pm

  2. well said

  3. gill walker
    31 Oct 12
    1:45 pm

  4. Wise words. We have been very generous to pro bono clients over the past 10 years. At times we have been burnt by their naviety – so we have developed a ‘pro bono’ policy and contract that outlines what both parties should expect from the relationship. Would be happy to share with other agencies if they want to e-mail me

  5. Larry
    31 Oct 12
    1:51 pm

  6. Spot on. That’s a lot of funding for their services and you would think they would have insight to recognise the importance of good creative and most times you get what you pay for.

  7. CS
    31 Oct 12
    1:51 pm

  8. Brilliantly said. It is insulting when you realise you are the only one in the value chain who has been asked to do something for free.

  9. Elisabeth Tuckey
    31 Oct 12
    2:03 pm

  10. Thankyou for your opinion piece Tim. On behalf of headspace I’d just like to correct one point. The funding we get from the Federal Government is specifically for service delivery and not advertising or community awareness campaigns. The $300 million you refer to goes directly into providing services for young people to help them get their lives back on track. That is why we rely on our generous and much appreciated support from our corporate partners to provide pro bono for advertising placement and other work. Without their support, and previously that of Draft fcb, we would not be able to communicate with young people and their families and improve the lives of so many.

    The support of Mumbrella to help us find a new ad agency partner is also appreciated. But to suggest we are flush with cash and are not justified to seek pro bono support is misleading. The agencies we spoke to in our search for a new partner – which continues – were well aware of this. I think most people would prefer to know that almost all of the $300 million of Federal Government money is going directly to help young people. In some cases it even saves their lives.

    Elisabeth Tuckey
    Head of Corporate Affairs

  11. AK
    31 Oct 12
    2:06 pm

  12. Yeah, heaven forbid that they should spend their grant money on the things the grant is for…

  13. Fo realz?
    31 Oct 12
    2:17 pm

  14. Because if a not for profit had to fork out hundreds of thousands for an advertising campaign, that’s money they no longer have to put towards their cause and internal resources. I didn’t think that would be too difficult to understand..

  15. Hugo
    31 Oct 12
    2:46 pm

  16. It’s a tragedy! taxpayer money is going to youth in dire need when it COULD be getting a full time employed person some extra pocket money……..the horror. If that grant money actually goes to who its intended for……oh dear.

    What’s next well off people making voluntary donations out of generosity/some sense of egalitarianism? What is this world coming to?

    I hope you appreciate how hard it was for me to keep this post abuse free. You tested my patience sir.

  17. daviddon
    31 Oct 12
    2:49 pm

  18. Look at their suit and shoes. And their car.

  19. anon_coward
    31 Oct 12
    3:13 pm

  20. That’s a large chunk of fed money they’re getting, and well done them. Excellent to see an org having success, and AFAIK providing a needed service.

    Question is with that much public teat largesse, what do you need all the pro bono work for?

    And is there a specific funding clause that prevents you from using federal funds to advertise your frontline services to the relevant audience and wider community?

    And are you looking to use the pro bono work to raise more funds from the community?

  21. radvert
    31 Oct 12
    3:28 pm

  22. @Elisabeth I think the point of the opinion piece was comparing the cost of staff (ie. your wage ) vs the numeration of the agencies who produce work for headspace.

    You may not see it, but there is a very fine line between the two.

  23. Brosh
    31 Oct 12
    3:31 pm

  24. I agree, Tim.

    I reckon when an NGO is cracking the 100 million dollar mark, largely from secure government funding, they’re big enough to be paying their way – even if it’s on a low-bono basis.

    Surely service delivery includes service promotion, and an organisation should be budgeting accordingly?

  25. Hmmmm...
    31 Oct 12
    3:47 pm

  26. Perhaps the Head of Corporate Affairs could also work for free, given that the role isn’t directly contributing to ‘getting young people’s lives back on track’.

    Tim asks a valid question. When executives and managers within the organisation earn a living from Headspace, why draw the line at professional services organisations?

  27. Nicole
    31 Oct 12
    3:57 pm

  28. As an employee of an NFP (not headspace), I thought it might also be worth pointing out that generally speaking, grant money is given on the proviso that it’s used for very specific purposes. At my workplace, we have to acquit each and every cent we spend to our funding partners, so if the $300million was given to provide services, then they obviously can’t turn around and spent same money that on advertising- they’d have to find the money to pay an agency elsewhere.

  29. Small Agency Owner
    31 Oct 12
    5:13 pm

  30. Hi Elisabeth,

    As Nicole states above I appreciate that when the Fed Gov’t ‘t provides funds for specific services then that is what it must go towards, and personally I don’t want one cent of that $300 million in funding being spent by headspace on anything but services that help alleviate mental health suffering and issues amongst young people.

    However, as the co-founder of a SME locally owned agency, I do find it strange that an organisation founded by my Federal Government expects an agency to work pro-bono:

    If headspace had grown from an independent supporter funded charity and was now getting significant gov’t funding for the services it provides, then I would have less of an issue with such a pro-bono arrangement, but it appears that headspace was formed and funded from its inception to deliver Gov’t youth mental health services, and as such to me it looks like the Federal Gov’t is wanting to get free marketing and advertising services.

    Happy to be corrected on the history and structure.

    I would respectfully suggest that there needs to be an acknowledgement from the Department of Health and Ageing that along with providing headspace with funding for its services, there needs to be an allocation of a separate, reasonable budget to communicate such services to young people who need that help.

  31. MikeZed
    31 Oct 12
    5:21 pm

  32. Some interesting points on pay – NFP’s have an interesting choice – assuming they choose not to pay market related pay scales because they’re a charity (which you guys seem to be advocating) – this means that they either get mediocre people, which massively decreases the efficiency of the organisation and therefore creates significant wastage of funds, or they have to find people who are willing to take a massive lifestyle hit in order to work for them. Given these options – would you rather the $300m was being spent by someone who was good at their job and ensured it actually made a difference (and was paid market rates), or by someone who was doing it “for the love”, was fairly clueless and nothing was really achieved.

    Obviously, the best outcome is to find someone who is really good at their job, but is of “independent means” and doesn’t need a huge (or even any) pay packet, because they work because they believe in the cause and want to make a difference. This is really hard to find in the “people” space, because most of us need to earn a living (it sometimes happens, but can’t be done for all roles)

    However, it’s easier to find in the services space (such as an ad agency) because a) ad agencies have lots of clients, and only rely on each client for a small share of income whereas most people only have 1 job, b) agencies have more potential to be able to compromise on rates if they’re doing well and c) there are other benefits outside of pay for agencies that may be worthwhile (staff morale, opportunity to do interesting work, chance to apply skills for good instead of evil etc.)

    Should the size and funding a charity be a criteria for whether or not they are “allowed” to ask for pro-bono work ? The Olympics was pretty well funded – were all the volunteers exploited and manipulated ? There are volunteers that work for Headspace already – are they being “exploited” whilst the execs get paid market rates – or is it just a fair exchange between 2 entities, in a world where not everything can be measured in money…

  33. Rob
    31 Oct 12
    5:26 pm

  34. For me it comes down to a simple question – if advertising is important in the communication of the service – who it’s for, how it’s delivered etc then it is worthy of spending grant money on……otherwise this aspect of the service will be compromised by relying on free creative/donated media.

    On the other hand, if it’s a chance for agencies to run wild on really creative, award-likely work that has no clear accountable goals relating to the org itself, then free sounds fair.

  35. Karalee
    31 Oct 12
    6:19 pm

  36. The salary comparison argument is frankly a little silly; agency salaries are supported by profit-generating clients, and should not be used to posit why NFPs should be or should not be working with agency partners in a pro-bono capacity.

    The crux of the matter is this; what benefit does an agency get out of a pro-bono client? And not just the socially-responsible, giving back to the World, feel good benefit kind..

    As for headspace – disclosure: I worked there for years – they have to spend the Gov’t funding on service provision. Simple. $300m is a disingenuous angle; perhaps ask them what their Comms/Marketing funding is..

  37. John Grono
    31 Oct 12
    6:39 pm

  38. I have a query. While I fully understand, respect and admire that all of the $300m Federal grant goes to those that need it, there must be other funds that pay for office space, utilities, salaries, support staff etc. Or are these funds quarantined from at least partially remunerating external providers (say 10% of the going rate as a reciprocal gesture of good will).

  39. Howard
    31 Oct 12
    8:53 pm

  40. How poor do you have to be before you start getting pro bono?

    (Yep, from a smaller NFP)

  41. Hypo C.
    31 Oct 12
    9:35 pm

  42. Interesting thoughts here. Have wondered myself about this, especially when confronted by the line “we’re just a charity”. Eyebrow rises higher when it’s a high profile, bowl always out, not-for-profit that is run by and large by a very well compensated group of family members of the founder.

  43. O rly?
    1 Nov 12
    10:08 am

  44. Marketing and comms is part of service delivery / provision – you can’t deliver a service if no one knows about it.

  45. Bob
    1 Nov 12
    10:45 am

  46. And obviously, all the non-core staff in Headspace (ie. marketing/PR, admin, cleaners) are all working pro bono?

  47. Alison_F
    1 Nov 12
    10:45 am

  48. Nice try, Ms Tuckey… however, I (and it seems others in this thread) remain unconvinced that Headspace shouldn’t be paying (albeit at a moderately reduced rate) for promoting the important services it delivers…

  49. Shamma
    1 Nov 12
    10:53 am

  50. “How rich do you have to be before you stop asking for pro bono?”

    Wording here seems off … ‘rich’ … a level of govt funding of that scale doesn’t imply the organisation is rich. I think this wording pollutes the debate as it implies one of the parties is flush with cash and asking another, private concern, to work for nothing.

    Could you not ask the same for private businesses that ask employees, interns, contributors to work for free? Surely it must be fair game if all participants are willing to partake in the exchange?

  51. nell schofield
    1 Nov 12
    12:38 pm

  52. i think Headspace needs to get in touch with the CFMEU for advice on how to syphon earmarked program funds into side projects – like advertising

  53. Hugo
    1 Nov 12
    2:52 pm

  54. I have to say, this article and the thread under it is one of the most illuminating windows into the industry I’ve seen.

    Professionals have a long tradition of volunteering their time for worthy causes.

    Docotors at free clinics, Lawyers taking pro bono/no win no fee jobs. Agencies too.

    But the attitudes on this page? Basically it boils down to “Rather than give something back I’d like the money to go to me, not some mentally ill kid in need of treatment”.

    So revealing point one: Not exactly a giving outlook.

    The implication that the service is “rich” is also pretty poor. As any one with a basic grasp of current affairs would know there is an absurbdy high number of Australian Youth suiciding out there – youth who are desperately short of services even with the likes of headspace and beyond blue out there.

    So revealing point two: Ignorance.

    It’s a really good thing Mumbrella is a specialist site with a mainly industry audience. Otherwise – the proffesional persuaders here are doing a fantastic job of persuading people that the negative stereotypes about the industry are accurate.

    You’ve managed to compare yourselves unflatteringly to lawyers. Take a bow.

  55. Alison_F
    1 Nov 12
    3:14 pm

  56. Are you a lawyer, Hugo?

  57. MikeZed
    1 Nov 12
    3:29 pm

  58. John Grono – we’ve worked with a number of NFPs, and to answer your question, yes, there are often funds that are tied to specific projects that can’t be used for things like external services etc. Most NFP funds are considered yo be either “tied” – ie. stuff that relates to a particular project / service delivery, etc. or “un-tied” – money that can be used for paying the rent, paying the ad agency etc. It is MUCH easier to fund-raise for tied funds (eg. any money you give us goes directly to the cause – think world vision and sponsoring a child) than to raise money that is untied – especially government or corporate money. Some charities create a services margin – ie. 20% of all funds raised for a project are siphoned off to support central infrastrucure (like marketing, admin and ceo salaries, rent etc.) But yes, in general, NFP’s have a patchwork for funding buckets, most of which have various conditions and strings attached. Gov money in particular is often tied to milestones and key service deliverables, allowing for little “discretionary” spending. We are part of a Collaborative Research Centre around Young people, mental health and digital technologies, and whilst the overall funding numbers are impressive, i can tell you that everyone involved is delivering well beyond what they’re getting paid for, and funds everywhere are tight.

  59. John Grono
    1 Nov 12
    4:59 pm

  60. Thanks MikeZed. I haven’t worked directly on pro-bono so was unsure. So in essence the $300m ‘pot’ was untouchable and funds would have to have come out of some other (much smaller) ‘pot’, but the tenor of the article doesn’t really reflect that.

  61. Craig
    8 Nov 12
    11:23 pm

  62. Advertising agencies executives clearly need to spend a lot more time understanding their potential clients in the NFP space – or at least get out more.

    Next time I need support for an NFP to communicate life saving messages I will be going directly to a law firm. They may not understand communication as well, but at least they understand when and why NFPs need pro bono work, and are more willing to help save lives than the many arrogant and ignorant commenters on this thread.