Plug into the power of pro bono public relations: Key lessons to help find a new outlet

December 26, 2007

Copyright © 2007 PRSA. All rights reserved.

By Jim Senior

The following article appears in the January 2008 issue of PR Tactics.

I learned about pro bono public relations from my brother. Some 15 years ago, my brother was getting his master’s in social work at Boston College. He telephoned to say his agency had assigned him to put together a press conference to announce the opening of an HIV/AIDS services shelter for the homeless.

I had just worked on a press conference in New York to introduce a new computer systems integration service. So, sharing my tactical experience, we created the AIDS shelter event. We collaborated with a small team of other volunteers to select the audience, speakers, media outreach, press kits, talking points, even the coffee and danish — all with the social services angle of helping people in dire need.

The event got great press. My brother added another skill to his résumé, and I experienced the power of pro bono public relations. Since then, pro bono work has become a key part of my career in two distinct areas I find compelling and rewarding: 1) volunteering to work on thought leadership projects for my employer, such as educating the public about the history of the computer, as well as the future of the industry and 2) reaching out on my own to serve in the local government, on a library board and, currently, on the marketing committee for the Montgomery Theater, which is a crucial part of revitalizing the town center of Souderton, Pa.

My message: If you choose your nonprofit with passion and commitment, pro bono public relations can provide an incubator for innovation and risk taking for you and your team while enhancing the nonprofit cause — and your company’s reputation.

Here are key lessons to help you select a pro bono opportunity and make it a differentiator.

1. Live a relevant life
John Carrow, senior vice president, strategic client development, Unisys, says, “I find that my work in nonprofit organizations is a link back to the community that we live in and serve.

“They amplify my personal involvement and allow me to extend out into the various communities to make a difference. To me that is important and rewarding. My main job has always been to leave things in better shape than I found them. That is my means of living a relevant life.”

Carrow has served on the boards of the American Red Cross, The National Adoption Center, The Philadelphia Theater Company and Ben Franklin Technology Partners, an independent nonprofit economic development organization established in 1982 to stimulate economic growth through innovation, entrepreneurship, and the development and adoption of new technologies.

2. Private and public sectors share many goals — enjoy the synergism
The Conference Board 2007 survey of 50 North American corporate giving programs reports that “the factor most influencing corporate giving priorities is aligning the giving program more closely with business needs.”

So, think about how your nonprofit aligns with your company’s goals.
Case in point: In 1985, Linda Rosanio started The Star Group on a credit card and a mantra that grew into “creating business.”  The CEO attributes a lot of the advertising/PR company’s reputation to its deep involvement with nonprofits that have universal appeal, such as the American Red Cross, where she’s an active board member.

Rosanio won the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce Paradigm Award in 2004, which is given to a female executive or entrepreneur for professional and personal achievements that serve as a model for success. Today, she leads an enterprise with 250 staff members serving clients through six offices in the United States.

3. Expand your network
Nonprofits offer you a whole new address book of movers and shakers. William H. Morgan, executive vice president and CIO, Philadelphia Stock Exchange, says, “For someone at the senior level in their areas of expertise, pro bono work also affords opportunities to build on current experience, provide exposure to new industries and even new career opportunities.”

Pro bono work, he says, can help build experience in board service, academia, organizational skills and strategic planning.

“I am always amazed how much I learn when I meet with my peers and discuss the business challenges that we all face. I almost always have some key take aways. These experiences can help build your network,” Morgan says.

4. Qualify your nonprofit
When it comes to deciding on where you contribute your time, Carrow says, “There are several factors, mostly personal, that come into play. First, does the mission of the organization have a personal appeal? If you are not charged up by what the organization does, you will not be effective.”

Ask yourself, “Who are the people that run the enterprise? Are they leaders in the community — and do they have the values and ethics that are required?”

Carrow says you should next size up your personal role. “If it is just giving money, there are lots of charities where you can do that. When you give your time and experience, however, you want to ensure that you are in a role that can influence the organization,” he says.

Finally, Carrow says after you qualify the nonprofit, recognize that you are not only representing yourself, but your company as well if your company is sponsoring your involvement.

5. Don’t overcommit
“Don’t commit to volunteering if you won’t have the time to do it,” advises Monsignor Joseph A. Tracy, Secretariat for Catholic Human Services (CHS) of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. CHS is one of the largest Catholic charity agencies in the country. Last year, it provided nearly 146,500 children and adults with a variety of critical services.

“Work closely with your designated supervisor,” he says. “Some of our volunteers have to leave us quickly because they did not anticipate the strain on their time management abilities. It’s critical to get an explanation and understanding of what your role is. Learn the nonprofit’s mission. Understand your position description.”

6. Rewrite your résumé
When you are looking for a new position, a crate of press releases won’t cut it. In the competitive PR job market, managers are looking for communicators with business-relevant experience. Pro bono public relations can enrich your résumé and your career story.

Michele C. Heid, managing partner, Heidrick and Struggles, a leading international executive recruiting firm, says, “The majority of best-in-class companies encourage their employees to give back to society, particularly in the communities where they reside and work.”

Heid predicts that the trend of companies wanting to influence public policy will continue. “Best-in-class companies instill the value of giving back to society,” she says. “Many college programs require that their students participate in some type of community service, and it is a value that is reinforced in today’s workplace.”

Tracy, meanwhile, praises college graduates volunteering for human services causes, such as raising awareness about violence in Philadelphia. “We’ve gotten good results from our  VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) people,” he notes. “In response to the high murder rate in the city, they worked very well with staff at our Beacon School programs to set up a peace festival at a park in a Kensington neighborhood.”

7. Innovate
Rosanio contends that nonprofits must master the Internet to get their messages out to stakeholders and potential volunteers.

“E-commerce has enormous potential for nonprofits, but it must be totally integrated into their overall communications strategy,” she says. “The Web is everything we have wanted — it’s cost-efficient and measurable.”

Might you leverage your company’s e-commerce expertise to help a nonprofit integrate the Web into its strategy? That’s a collaboration that can start aligning business and nonprofit for mutual benefit. It can also give you the chance to win more volunteers from your workplace — so they can apply their expertise.

As a CIO for 11 years at Unisys, and previously the first cabinet-level CIO of the city of Philadelphia, Carrow says that all the disciplines of project management are vital. Everything is a project, he says, and the skills and disciplines work wherever you go.

"Relationship management with suppliers and business partners takes place in both public and private sectors,” Carrow says. “ And, of course, in most areas I serve, the technical skills are called upon by the nonprofit organization to help them modernize and be contemporary.”

Jim Senior has managed information technology communications for Unisys Corporation for 12 years. During that time he has also served as corporate speechwriter and worked on PR pitches.



Harry Maclay says:

Jim Senior has presented a well-researched, well-written treatise that brings pro bono PR into sharp focus. It opens the door to a wide range of areas for pro bono PR to explore.

Dec. 23, 2008

mik says:

may i ask, what are the tactics that could be done if a certain bank will be bought by another bank because it's already bankrupt.

Sept. 8, 2009

Michelle A. Smith says:

This is very exciting. I am curating a festival for socially relevant works by artists and filmmakers wanting to make a difference in the world. I worked in the legal profession and knew lawyers provided pro bono services but had no idea that the same was present in Public Relations. Thanks for sharing. Now I am off to find a firm to work with on my event.

Aug. 14, 2016

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