Straight from the heart

Getting your pro-bono jobs to work out can be just as tricky as with paid-for projects. Angus Montgomery weighs up the pros and cons

For the more pious among you, the attractions of pro-bono work will be obvious. There’s the warm glow of pride in lending a helping hand for no financial reward, and the knowledge that although your real bank account may not have seen a benefit, your karmic account will be boosted.

And even for the more cynical there are benefits in working for free – you get to choose the projects you’re interested in, without pressure from corporate clients, and you often get more creative flexibility and the opportunity to try out new techniques.

If you’ve taken the decision, as many consultancies have, to do a certain amount of work on a pro-bono basis, you then face a number of issues: how to get the right work, how to get the right amount of work, how to deal with clients who aren’t paying you a fee, and how to manage the work process.

While many consultancies work on pro-bono projects on an ad-hoc basis, some approach it in a more structured way. At WPP consultancy The Partners, teams are allocated a certain amount of time each year to work on projects of their choosing. Pro-bono work is encouraged at WPP as part of the network’s corporate responsibility strategy, although WPP head of corporate responsibility Vanessa Edwards says there is no formal overarching policy as the network’s groups are so diverse in terms of both geography and sector that it would be impossible to implement. ‘Pro-bono only really works when people are passionate about a subject and have a real interest in it,’ she points out.

At consultancy Forster, which specialises in what it terms ‘ethical marketing’, a certain amount of budget is set aside for campaign work, either work the consultancy does for itself, or pro-bono work. In addition, each member of staff at Forster gets 40 hours each year to work on self-initiated projects. In a rather less structured manner, WPP consultancy Addison, which specialises in corporate communications such as annual reports, tends to work on pro-bono projects in August and September. ‘The nature of our business is quite cyclical, so we tend to have a quiet period where we can do the sort of work we want to,’ says client services director Guy Jefferson.

At consultancy Frameworks, though there are only around ten staff, an effort is made to support about four or five charities at any one time, according to account director James Trowman. He says, ‘Our work started as we wanted to put something back into the community. For example, we work with the Estorick Collection as our old offices in Islington were just down the road from it.’

At The Partners there is what creative partner Greg Quinton describes as ‘a small bit of process’, a letter which substitutes a written contract. He says that at the start of each pro-bono contract, the consultancy will write to the client saying, ‘If this doesn’t work out then let’s stay friends.’ He adds, ‘We make decisions on jobs mostly based on relationships. Much of the point of this is to work with interesting people.’

The majority of pro-bono work comes either from friends or contacts approaching consultancies, or from staff wanting to work with causes or organisations they are passionate about. The Partners’ work for Mr Singh’s Bangras, the sausage company set up by Daljit Singh, founder of fellow WPP group Digit, falls firmly into the former category, while the same consultancy’s work for London children’s hospice Richard House is a good example of the latter.

But pro-bono work can come through in other ways too. Draught Associates was commissioned to rebrand registered charity The Poetry Society last year after offering to undertake the work on a pro-bono contract worth £7000 as part of a five-way creative pitch.

Draught Associates director Michael Lenz says the consultancy does relatively little pro-bono work, adding that in the case of The Poetry Society, ‘We were very interested in doing the project for what it was – it’s something we had to make a call on.’

Several consultancies have also encountered clients which put projects out to pitch, while strongly insinuating that no fee will be given for the work. Quinton describes this as ‘crazy’, adding, ‘We would never pitch for pro-bono work, you simply can’t ask consultancies to commit all that time for free.

If much of the joy of pro-bono work is in being allowed complete freedom to work with who you want in whatever way you want, then it’s obvious that the onus in on consultancies to regulate this work themselves. Deborah Dawton, chief executive of the Design Business Association, says, ‘It’s up to individual businesses to decide what they want to do in this respect. I’d like to think that there’s a generosity of spirit in the industry which means that they are able to support those who really cannot pay for work and that they feel they have a real passion to work with.’

Paul Rand on pro-bono work

  • The late Paul Rand, who did his fair share of pro-bono work alongside bill-paying identities for corporate clients including IBM and UPS, is quoted as saying, ‘The reward for pro-bono work is not always just in heaven.’
  • He added, ‘Pro-bono designs do not have to undergo the rigours of marketing and research. And pro-bono jobs are generally more interesting and challenging than run-of-the-mill business assignments, which are often driven by time-worn traditions and prejudices.’

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  • Irene November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    Pro Bono work is indeed an avenue to quench creative thirst and is also a good way of giving back to the society. Nonetheless, what many fail to realise is that the process of creating a piece of work regardless of whether you get paid at the end of the day cannot be just one way. I feel that the idea of pro bono cannot be seen as doing it for free. Monetary wise, yes but one must value the time, commitment that are involved in the entire process. The onus mus still be shared between client and agency.

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