This article was written by Liza Ramrayka and published in Guardian Professional,Tuesday 28 June 2011 12.21 BST
Pro bono work needs a professional makeover Photograph: Jed Share/Getty Images
Voluntary and community organisations have long enjoyed the benefits of free professional support in the shape of pro bono work. But budget restraints are forcing many in the sector to take a more business-like approach to what historically have been ad hoc arrangements with their professional partners.
Earlier this year, the NSPCC claimed a first for the sector when it appointed a team of legal firms to provide pro bono support following a competitive tender process. The process, which ran from September to December 2010, involved the NSPCC inviting 21 firms to tender. Eleven submitted proposals and four - Clifford Chance, Baker & McKenzie, Wragge & Co LLP and Walker Morris – secured a place on the legal panel.
The firms will provide legal support in areas including employment, intellectual property, commercial and IT issues - worth around £250,000 to the charity. Other benefits will include legal training and use of meeting rooms. The firms will also encourage staff to get involved in volunteering for NSPCC projects such as its helpline ChildLine.
When Catherine Dixon, general counsel at NSPCC, came into post some 15 months ago, she found that the charity had been accessing pro bono legal advice on an ad hoc basis. "I thought we could create a panel of trusted advisors," she explains. "The idea was for this to be mutually beneficial, for law firms looking to enhance CSR or opportunities to get staff volunteering."
Dixon points out that these legal beauty parades are a common way for law firms to pitch for work from other sectors, but a new approach for charities. As well as looking for "a broad range of commercial advice", the NSPCC asked firms to demonstrate their "value-adds". While some firms asked for a three-year relationship, Dixon says the concept is a new one so NSPCC will review arrangements after 12 months.
Last year Meningitis Trust was looking for ways to exploit opportunities around its 25th anniversary in 2011. The Stroud-based charity had heard about a new initiative from Just:: Health PR, offering charities a share of communications support worth £150,000.
The Trust submitted an initial application online for funding from the initiative, entitled A Just:: Cause – Pitching for Partnership. It was among the 10 charities short-listed to make a brief presentation to a judging panel including communications guru Alison Canning and ex-Sun health editor Jacqui Thornton. The charity's communication manager Harriet Penning accompanied chief executive Sue Davie on the pitch. "It was quite daunting because we hadn't done anything like this before," admits Penning.
Despite Penning's concerns that her charity would be overlooked in favour of more well-known names, Meningitis Trust was picked alongside Alzheimer's Society and Epilepsy Action. Each will receive £50,000 of communications support during 2011. The Trust is focusing on a parliamentary campaign hooked on its 25th anniversary and raising brand awareness. "Obviously this is a huge amount of money for a charity of our size," she says.
Formal schemes such A Just Cause have become much more common over recent years but do attract fierce competition. Communications agency Band & Brown's annual scheme attracted interest from over 70 health and wellbeing charities last year. Mental health charity Mind finally won the pitch after an agency staff vote.
If your organisation has little or no experience of pro bono arrangements, using a broker can help you find the best fit. LawWorks can match lawyer volunteers with organisations England and Wales looking for project help. IT4Communities brings together IT professionals with charity projects. The Media Trust offers a media matching service for one-off or ongoing projects. It is also working with JWT London to offer a pro bono campaign planning (deadline for entries is 8 July).
Marketing expert Paul Skinner launched online skills match service, Pimp My Cause this month to link strategists, advertisers, web designers and other marketers with good causes. The free service allows professionals and organisations to register their interests. Alex Epstein, who featured in series 6 of BBC TV's The Apprentice, helped launch the site with a partnership to provide brand management strategy to UK Youth. John Marsden director of venture capital fund managers, Innvotec, and strategic planning guru Aladin, are among the other advisors. The site already has over 200 members, including 80 charities and voluntary groups.
Skinner, whose past experience includes global brand development for L'Oreal, hopes Pimp My Cause will help organisations to change with the times: "For many, the underlying strategic need is to find a way to leapfrog image-based marketing to more interactive marketing," he says. The site features a Twitter helpdesk for organisations to get instant advice from forum members. Future plans include case studies to demonstrate pro bono success stories.
Penning at Meningitis Trust says investing time in pro bono applications can pay dividends: "I would whole-heartedly encourage anyone to do it. Initially [the process] can be off-putting but the benefits far outweigh this.