You’ve surmounted a major hurdle in securing the pro-bono services of an agency to support your nonprofit’s marketing initiatives. Now comes the delicate balancing act of managing the relationship. Do you treat the agency purely as a supplier or more like a volunteer? The truth is somewhere in the middle.

Here are five steps to help you manage a pro-bono agency relationship.


1. Know your limits but be prepared to be flexible

An agency will likely suggest ideas that shake up your notions of a campaign or approach. This could result in a great leap forward for expanded audience mindshare and your brand. But you also need to retain and connect with your current audiences. Where is the line between the two?

David Foy, President of Agency 59 Response notes, “An agency hopes that with greater creative control while working on a pro bono account, they will produce work that is often breakthrough and attract more business.”

Have a frank and open discussion with your internal teams to determine the comfort level with becoming more audacious with the brand in order to raise awareness or support fundraising. If you have well-established brand guidelines, or sensitive audiences, this could become a more challenging negotiation. Once you are confident of your position and rationale, communicate those points with your agency.

Above all, the line will be determined by your strategy. If that is well thought out and on target, the creative advertising or other tactics should directly support it.


2. Assign the right staff to manage the relationship

The relationship with a pro-bono agency goes beyond a pure supplier-client arrangement, to a partnership. Therefore, it’s important to assign the right internal staff to maintain that relationship.

A senior leader, such as a Marketing Director, is the likely best choice for overseeing the relationship in general. This senior staff can also handle internal communications with other decision makers such as the CEO or board.

On a day-to-day basis, a designated team member can handle the back and forth of executing a project, most likely with an account manager at the agency. Keeping the number of contact points to a minimum is key to maintaining efficiency and clear communication in the relationship.

The agency may also involve their senior staff on your account as, Bob Froese, CEO of Bob’s Your Uncle notes, “…the requirement to often present directly to a nonprofit’s Board of Directors is not something an agency would generally want to leave to junior staff. Other aspects, like negotiating media contributions from media providers, also requires senior level involvement from the agency as this is not something that is typically handled by media planners and buyers.”


3. Avoid the committee mentality

Many nonprofits are consensus-based environments, which involves the approval of large groups of people. While this level of caution in decision-making is understandable in dealing with donors’ money, it can be toxic to timely and creative marketing.

David Foy observes, “Nonprofit accounts are labour intensive because many aspects of decision making are made by committees. Therefore, creative, budgets and strategies often take weeks and months to get approved.”

Often, by the time creative work is approved, its initial freshness may have been very watered down by committees that are not specialists in marketing, resulting in work with weakened impact. That approach can also de-motivate the agency.

Streamlining your internal processes is critical to working well with the agency.

If there must be committee involvement, create a small working group of two or three people that is empowered to make judgment calls on behalf of the larger team and report back. In the midst of campaign development and execution, the agency may need decisions on a compressed timeline, so be prepared to respond in kind.


4. Schedule realistically

By its nature, an agency will often have to shift priorities in order to service its own client base. While the intent is to treat nonprofits like paying clients, the agency constantly balances its revenue generation with charitable service. After all, the agency’s ability to help your organization is based on a steady stream of income from others. Make sure to create generous timelines with room for adaptability when engaging a pro-bono agency.

The team member managing the daily relationship should be skilled in communicating urgency coupled with flexibility.


5. Nurture the relationship

The pro-bono agency relationship can be significant for both your nonprofit and the agency. Manage that relationship with directness, honesty and good humour. Ensure that you’re sharing your appreciation on a regular basis, creating networking possibilities with your board and other influencers, and providing options for active agency staff involvement with your organization.

Not only does this help with your volunteer recruitment, but as Froese describes, it provides, “an opportunity to engage staff and build culture with a collective commitment to a cause that they care about and can directly contribute to through both their work and other efforts.”

Introduce your own staff to the inner workings of the agency. Perhaps set up a job shadowing opportunity as a way to provide some bonus marketing training for your team. If possible, make the time for some unstructured non work-related socializing with the agency staff. That camaraderie will ease tensions during moments of high stress.

When your contracted time with the agency is up, maintain a link with them. The next time you look for pro-bono help, having a great reference and an active connection will jump start your search.


Agencies and nonprofits have a rich history of producing strong and enduring work together. If you can get the balance of the pro-bono relationship right, your organization and the agency will reap the benefits for years to come.

Katherine Moffat

Katherine Moffat

Owner and Creative Director at Stonetown Studio
Katherine Moffat is the Founder & Chief Creator at Stonetown Studio, located in beautiful St. Marys, Ontario. With a couple of decades of experience in graphic design, creative direction, branding and project management for corporate and nonprofit organizations under her belt, she also actively pursues her passion for ceramics as a maker and marketer of her work. If you’re looking for a collaboration in any of these areas, visit to find out more.
Katherine Moffat