Whether you’re a marketing department of one in a small nonprofit, or an in-house agency of a bigger charity, marketing dollars are tight. Unless your organization comes up with that one in a million marketing idea that puts the cause on the map and huge funds in the coffers (ice bucket anyone?), nonprofits are always seeking to raise further awareness and money. One solution for stretched resources is to seek out external agency support, preferably pro-bono or at a reduced rate.

An agency offers you the immediate benefit of a highly specialized in-house workforce in a number of disciplines, such as advertising, PR, branding or digital marketing, and gives you access to other professionals, for example:

  • Reporters across many channels
  • Advertising directors and crews
  • Media buyers or managers
  • App developers

Working with an agency has the potential to really expand your marketing effectiveness in an increasingly competitive market.


Here are ten steps to recruit pro-bono agency support for your nonprofit.

1. Look critically at your own team’s strengths

Before you even start looking for marketing support, take a hard look at your own internal capacities. Is your marketing team completely tapped out? Can you streamline your own staff duties to claim back valuable resource time?

An external agency will be an adjunct to, and not a replacement for, your team. Even if your group is small, you are entirely focused on your cause, your brand and your audiences. Don’t undervalue this critical asset. That being said, an agency will bring a fresh perspective to reach audiences in a memorable way. The combination of strengths could be invaluable to your brand.

Finally, is there someone already within the team that has the bandwidth to manage the relationship in an ongoing way? A committed team member or leader with experience in supplier or partner management would be ideal.


2. Have a thorough understanding of your annual budget

Your marketing budget, or lack of one, may have been the driving reason behind seeking pro-bono support in the first place. So before you start looking for help, your budget is worth another look. Could you divert funds from other projects, or defer them, in order to supplement your ask to an agency?

Bob Froese, CEO of Bob’s Your Uncle in Toronto finds that, “the obvious challenge is funding. With a proliferation of nonprofits seeking pro-bono services and media it can be a challenge to deliver against expectations of donated media and production.”

Even if you are successful in securing pro-bono support, there is a possibility of incurring some costs for services beyond the agency’s scope.


3. Accept the realities of geography

If you’re operating in a small centre, it’s unlikely you’ll find an agency in your immediate community. However, if you’re still determined to look, one possibility is developing a common call to action with several nonprofits in the same sector that might be of more interest for an agency in a larger centre to take on pro-bono.

If that arrangement is too complex, you could seek pro-bono help from an individual consultant in your community. It might be a good option to raise awareness of both your brands in a limited market. Further advice on that topic can be found here.


4. Determine your biggest marketing priority

If external agency support is necessary, determine your biggest marketing need. For example, it could be an advertising campaign, rebranding, or a website reboot.

Ensure you’ve done all your preparation to make working with your team an easy sell. A project plan with room for creative interpretation is much more appealing than a vague pitch to get any help you can for free.

As David Foy, President of Toronto’s Agency 59 Response points out: “With a regular client, the agency is often better prepared to staff the account and anticipate the needs, resources and volume of work… There’s a clear understanding right from the beginning of what is expected… It starts with strategic planning, creative, media and account management.”

Why not act like a regular client when it comes to your planning?


5. Research agency sizes, skill sets and clients

Research all the agencies that might be a good fit for your need. Like your own team, small to midsize agencies (5-50 employees) have specialties and strengths, such as advertising, digital marketing, direct response or branding. In my experience, agencies that sell themselves as being great at everything often aren’t.

Froese, notes that an agency “…needs to be in a position to make the resource commitment and tackle the assignment with the same gusto as…a for profit assignment. That generally becomes more possible with a larger agency size, however larger agencies are often not independent and that can make the decision tougher if they are answering to a board of directors or foreign owner.”

Look at agencies that may have done nonprofit work in the past. They may be willing to take on a new cause if they have the capacity.


6. Look in your own backyard

Rather than beginning to cold call or advertise right away, approach recruitment like a job search by starting with your organization’s current network of of agencies who support your sponsors, donors and suppliers. This approach can work in your favour as you’ll already have a foot in the door with an agency who may be willing to support your nonprofit to demonstrate their commitment to the sponsor. It may not meet your entire need but could result in bonus creative or media buys, for example.


7.  If you’ve exhausted all known networks, look farther afield

Write some compelling copy that will draw agencies to your cause and brand. If you’re looking for new creative, advertising or messaging, an agency could be looking for an opportunity to stretch its own wings with less stringent parameters than they encounter with other paying clients.

Recruit support via all available media and contacts including:

  • Your website and online portals
  • Mass e-mail
  • Social media channels
  • Newsletters
  • Volunteers and leaders, including board members
  • Advertising in targeted publications and sites where agencies may be looking for new RFPs

Says Foy, “An agency often will take on the pro bono account knowing that they have greater control over the final work being released. Hopefully, it is award winning and work that garners positive attention from other clients and agencies.”


8. Determine brand and team compatibility

Consider your cause and brand and how it marries with the brand of potential agency partners. For example, if your cause is environmental, approach agencies that may already have a stake in that sector. A partnership with a strong, credible nonprofit in the same sector could be a boon to those agencies’ brands.

The values of the agency and its people, as well as those of your own team and leaders, can determine if a relationship would be a good fit. Says Bob Froese, “Brand compatibility is important but I think people compatibility is equally important. Nonprofits have an opportunity to build highly effective working relationships with agencies by simply being respectful, appreciative and fully valuing the creativity and effort of the agency.”

Some agencies look for nonprofit accounts solely as a conduit for boundary-pushing creative work, to bolster industry award nominations and their reputations. They will demand full creative control in exchange for services.

Respecting creative ideas is important, but so is respect of your expertise. Be cautious of completely handing over the reins to an agency. If your cause and brand are held hostage to creative that is counter-productive to your long term goals, even free work can be costly.


9. Set up face-to-face meetings, and decide on relevant measures for evaluation

If you’ve been successful in recruiting some interest, strike a small committee with relevant decision makers in your organization to sit in on face-to-face pitch meetings with agencies.

Set some standard parameters to evaluate all candidates equally, including reference checks with their existing clients. If an agency has been recommended internally by a senior leader or influencer, ensure it is also measured by the same process. You want to find the best match through due diligence and not based solely on personal relationships.


10. Define duties and boundaries

Congratulations! You’ve brought on a new pro-bono agency partner. Start the relationship off right by creating a memorandum of understanding or contract to define duties within specific time frames, and have both parties sign off. This will also be useful if you are providing a tax receipt for services.

Remember that there may be production costs over and above the pro-bono services. Your contract should also outline these potential expenses.

Summarize what your organization will offer in return for services. This could include:

  • Employee volunteer opportunities
  • Thank you emails
  • Matte stories in newsletters
  • Tickets for special events
  • Connections with board members
  • Agency brand recognition on your website and publications
  • Promotion in any other marketing vehicle that you feel is appropriate to the donation

As Bob Froese eloquently states, for an agency, “many of these are nice-to-haves and the real benefit should be the intrinsic value of doing something that helps build the community you live and work in.”

Searching for, and finding an agency with the resources and expertise to help you expand your reach farther than you thought possible can be a real asset for your cause. Once you bring an agency on board, there will be added responsibility and accountability for managing the relationship and the work coming out of it. If you’ve given the process its due, it will be a rewarding experience for both your nonprofit and the agency.


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 stonetownstudio.com to find out more.
Katherine Moffat