Why every agency should work pro bono with a small, local charity

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Working with Helen & Douglas House children’s hospice

Charity briefs are tough. It’s hard to accept the distressing subject matter that these organisations champion. Whether you’re an account handler, planner or creative, we are forced to face the things in life we’d much rather ignore if they’re not happening to us directly.

The other challenge agencies face is justifying the cost. Let’s be real; we work in a commercial world so giving time for free doesn’t always make good business sense. However, pro bono work for smaller charities has benefits that outweigh any monetary gain. I’m not referring to big charities with big budgets. They don’t need the free work. It’s the local charities that nobody has heard of that need agency time. Agencies need these charities more than they realise and I urge them to offer their staff this opportunity. Here’s why.

It’s what staff want

Working sabbaticals has become something of a trend in our industry. Former Grey chief executive officer Lucy Jameson used her gardening leave to intern at Facebook. Closer to home, one of our clients took a career sabbatical to work with local charity Helen & Douglas House children’s hospice.

Marketers have an urge to give back, but I’d argue you shouldn’t have to leave your job to do so. Everyone should have the opportunity to give back with the talents they get paid to use, and smaller charity briefs might retain this talent. Who hasn’t listened to a creative having a crisis over whether or not advertising is for them at some point?

We all understand that paying the bills is essential, but to stem the inevitable jaded outlook that is common among creative talent, we need projects that give something back. Small charity briefs that aren’t ‘just another brief’ offset the guilt of selling sugary breakfast cereal and other seemingly meaningless commodities with our art and copy. Making good work for a client that does good work = good karma.

It’s a real challenge

Truly challenging briefs can be hard to come by in our industry. Even the most seasoned creatives will find themselves falling into a pattern of repurposing ideas for similar brands. Charity briefs may seem simple (raise awareness and drive donations), but they are by no means straightforward. The creative process of the Helen & Douglas House brief meant taking heart-breaking case studies home to read on the bus, and immersing oneself in a world that was difficult to bear.

The stakes were also much higher: although most clients give us challenging briefs that allow us to create outstanding, meaningful work, this brief involved urgency for donations – raising money for children with terminal illnesses to provide them comfortable, end of life care. This meant being direct, unapologetic and emotionally engaging without subscribing to ‘sadvertising’. The test was incredibly difficult, but pushed the team and our ideas a lot further.

It offers creative freedom and growth

Charity projects tend to mean a smaller team is all an agency can spare, working in an agile way, with no time or money for rounds and rounds of amends The fewer cooks involved in a sensitive project, the better. If you are lucky enough to be part of it, be prepared to do so in a profoundly personal way.

Our experience with Helen & Douglas House meant we spent a lot of time in the hospice, meeting the children, their families and the staff that worked tirelessly to support them. When I’d previously worked on a brief for a larger, better-known charity, I visited the client once in a corporate building. I never actually met the people my work would be directly impacting.

Being emotionally engaged makes a difference to the work. It’s boots-on-the-ground creative. Smaller budgets mean a skeleton crew, so you’re likely going to be the one directing families, children or patients. There’s no hiding in the green room or chatting to the makeup artists. You learn more on the shoot about yourself as a creative than you would on big-budget shoots. I have since taken this knowledge and experience and applied it to other profitable clients in the business, ultimately making me better at my job.

It’s good for morale

How many times have you put your heart into something only to have it ripped out by client feedback? It can be soul destroying. I’d suggest working on a local charity project as food for that broken soul because although pro bono work might not earn your agency any money, the charity that you have done that work for will pay you back ten-fold in gratitude. And it’s not just the client feedback. The feedback from the staff or the families themselves will stay with you long past the campaign live date. It means something.

A call to arms

Agencies should be on the lookout for smaller, local charities. You don’t necessarily need to set up a special department or be put off by the resource planning you have in place. Ask the question, and you’ll find out that people in your agency will put up their hands. And if you don’t believe me, log on to LinkedIn right now and scroll past posts from copywriters, art directors and marketers eager to volunteer their time to charities.

It may not be good for business, but it’s good for the soul, good for staff and good for the industry.

Danielle Grogan is copywriter at Gravity Thinking.

This article was originally published in the charity issue of The Drum Network magazine series. You can purchase your copy here.

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