Imagine your agency has just been asked to do some pro bono work. Whether through a formal or informal process, your team asks questions to see if you should take it on:

  • Can we give this the attention it deserves?
  • How important is this cause?
  • How much can we help them?

While these are all valuable and relevant, I think a few others are more important:

  • How much do we really care about this cause?
  • How motivated will our people be to work on it?
  • How much can we get in return for this?

If this sounds like a selfish approach to you, it is. As much as we may want to believe that pro bono work is entirely generous in every way, we know it’s not. I want to take it a step further by proposing any work that by definition is done “for the public good” should first be put through the filter of what’s “for the agency’s good.”

McKinney is proud of all our pro bono work, but here are two examples that illustrate my point.

Equality NC and the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), “Stop HB2”

In early 2016, North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory signed House Bill 2, which, among other things, required transgender people to use the bathroom of their gender assigned at birth. Besides violating basic human rights and being nearly impossible to ever truly enforce, this so-called “bathroom bill” made our state look cruel and backward. Immediately, our state’s economy took a hit as the rest of the country seemingly canceled all business here in protest: conferences, concerts, sporting events, corporate relocations and expansions, and even work-related travel disappeared, one after the other.

This was a gut punch to us at the agency. We care about equal rights for all. And we care about doing what we can to affect positive change from our headquarters in Durham, a diverse and progressive city in a state long known as the beacon of the progressive South. HB2 undermined our ability to attract the right types of clients and agency talent that would fit and enhance our culture. It also directly threatened our agency’s purpose: “To discover and unleash the untapped potential in our world.” Notice it’s not “the” world but rather “our” world, the one under attack.

After a few days of feeling helpless, the managing director of our New York office told us to metaphorically get our heads out of our backsides and do something about it. And we did.

First, a rather large group of employees volunteered to invest “after hours” time to the cause, doing everything from research and strategic development to finding production partners who would donate their time as well. Next, we found allies in Equality NC and the Human Rights Campaign, who were just as fired up as we were about fighting back and undoing the harm done by HB2. Finally, we created the four-part “Stop HB2” campaign, which won a Jay Chiat Award for Strategy, a D&AD Impact Award and, most importantly, helped unseat McCrory and overturn HB2.

We acted in the best interests of McKinney and, in doing so, did a lot of good for HRC, Equality NC and our home state.

Ad Council, “No One Gets a Diploma Alone”

Our work for the Ad Council’s Dollar General Literacy Fund is part of a long-running effort designed to encourage older adults who never graduated high school to find free education courses in order to get their diploma.

This opportunity was beneficial to us in several ways. First, we believed it would help our reputation, as the Ad Council is a venerable organization with a strong mission, a history of great work, and exposure to influential people in our industry. Second, it allowed several people at McKinney to gain new experience in a way that gave them more freedom and say. Finally, it was a personal passion of several McKinneyites. Most of us were fortunate to grow up with the assumption and expectation that we would graduate from high school and immediately go to college. But a group of employees here did not follow that traditional path. They cared deeply about helping those who had to stop their education for major life challenges, most of which revolved around taking care of a loved one in a time of great need.

Our “No One Gets A Diploma Alone” campaign was the most effective one the fund had ever done. It helped boost site visits 70% and drive more than 200,000 people to enter the all-important ZIP code search, where they can find a local center to help them earn their diploma.

Though an important issue, not every agency was well suited for this opportunity, just as any agency isn’t necessarily the perfect fit for a particular paid account. Our particular self-interests made it the perfect fit for us at that particular time. And there’s no doubt those self-interests made the work better and more effective.

Maybe it’s actually better to be selfish when doing good

I know there’s inherent cognitive dissonance in thinking selfishly about pro bono work. But once I got over this seeming contradiction, I realized that it’s better for the cause: It makes the work more effective.

When you’re not working for money, passion must motivate all you do. If you’re not passionate about a pro bono cause, it will be too easy to deprioritize it, and the work won’t be as effective. Every pro bono client we partner with needs us to sweat the details, take a stand for what we believe to be right, and infect everyone else with the same passion.

So next time you get a pro bono opportunity, consider a more selfish approach. Your agency will help the cause more if you first think about helping your agency.