One Approach to Pro Bono Work: Employee Secondment

Many if not most reputable agencies provide free professional services to causes they care about.  This is usually done pro bono publico – literally “for the public good” — and when managed properly, these arrangements offer benefits to the agency and recipient alike.  For the latter: access to professional advice and support that might otherwise be unaffordable.  And for the former: an opportunity to give something back, build skills, gather experience and make new connections.  Some do it for accolades, but most do it because it simply seems to be the right thing to do.

At the same time, pro bono commitments are not easy to manage. Balancing the needs of paying clients versus those getting time for free is a challenge, with both kinds potentially feeling short-changed or under-valued at the expense of the other.  Enthusiasm for the  “feel good” nature of the pro bono work can lead to mission creep, making the real time and costs for supporting it hard to forecast and even harder to manage.  And when it rains, it pours; peak activity for the free work inevitably seems to clash with the paying gigs.

So how are socially responsible agencies to cope?

One approach Ketchum has applied is employee secondment – literally donating an employee to causes near and dear to our hearts.  Over the past several years we have embedded several employees with two great organizations – Room To Read in San Francisco and the World Economic Forum in Geneva – giving them access to the Ketchum network via our best and brightest (these are competitive and highly-sought opportunities), with some clear advantages over the usual model of asking account teams to take on a non-paying client:

  1. It’s focused. Our “seconded” colleagues get an amazing experience to join a client team with no or few agency distractions, while the host organization gets a high-quality “hire” for a year at no cost, rather than a little bit of time from a larger team.
  2. It’s predictable.  Ketchum’s costs for the employee are fixed and easier to forecast, and the recipient organizations are able to apply our expertise on their time, rather than on the availability of a volunteer team.
  3. It’s flexible.  One of the great things about pro bono assignments is the opportunity for people to do something new, and our seconded employees – now on the inside with all of their knowledge of the Ketchum network — look for ways to involve Ketchum specialists and offices as and when their expertise is needed.   The recipient organization gets what they need, when they need it.
  4. It has depth. A drawback to the traditional arrangement is that agency teams may have little time or opportunity to really understand the nature and needs of the recipient organization, especially if there is a possibility of the pro bono work taking a second seat to the paid engagements.  Secondment ensures the agency commitment is firm and that there is sufficient time and access for both parties to really engage.

Sounds win-win, doesn’t it?

As a Senior Partner, CEO of Ketchum’s European operations and Chairman of the London office, David Gallagher brings more than 20 years of public relations experience, both as a client and as a senior agency adviser, to some of the world’s leading brands and companies. Interested in PR, politics, Texas Longhorns and life with two labradoodles. Follow him on Twitter @TBoneGallagher.