[updated May 16]
Think you can get your communications work done for free? Just like a free lunch, there’s no such thing.
Social profit organizations make two classic mistakes when it comes to communications. They try to do too much of it–or all of it–in house without the proper expertise. Or they only use skilled professionals when they can get the work for free. Both are signs that your organization may not place enough value on communications.
This post is inspired by an offer of a communications firm to celebrate its anniversary by helping one charity for every year that it has existed. Another inspiration are firms that establish themselves in the community by doing pro bono work for nonprofits. Both examples are valid ways to do and grow your business. They are also fine ways to give back to your community.
But these opportunities may not be in the best interests of the organizations being helped.
Better to give a fish or teach a man to fish?
Let me put it in terms familiar to my friends in the charitable sector, getting free communications help is like giving a man a fish rather than teaching him how to fish. The first example provides immediate help but it doesn’t make the long term impact the second example does.
I obviously have a self-interest in whether charities pay for communications. I do afterall own a communications firm that primarily works with charities and nonprofits. But my position is not new. It is one I’ve held almost as long as I got my first full-time job for a social profit organizations. And it is a position that I’d hold if I put my business behind me to follow another opportunity.
I also realize that most of my organizations that I want to work with can not afford to pay for all or even most of their communications. That is why I am happy to help develop a communications strategy that includes tools that they have the expertise in house to use or can develop it with some coaching. I want as much as possible to teach them how to fish which is one reason why I offer so much free strategic communications advice here on this blog.
Paying indicates you value communications
Like it or not, one of the best indicators that we value goods and services is if we pay for it. That is why I classify relying on free communications as a sign it is not valued.
Think about it! Would your organization rely upon free fundraising support? Free strategic planning consultants? Free accounting services? Or IT provided by only by volunteers or when firms are feeling generous?
If your organization is totally volunteer run or just getting established you might rely on free communications work but once you start to pay staff or external resources, you’re starting to show what you value. At some point communications should be valued as the other services are.
Avoid relying on free communications
Rather than repeat my post on why your organization should value communications, I’d like to focus on the price to be paid for relying upon free communications.
Amateur efforts by trying to do too much in house
Small to mid-sized organizations often try to do as much if not all of there communications in house–even if they do not have staff with the expertise, skills or knowledge. Sure they might be paying for that staff time but they also pay for it in communications that is too often amateurish and does a poor job of achieving their communications goals and objectives. They suffer from not placing a value on quality methods to reach their target audience.
The solution: You can avoid paying the price for poor communications by hiring qualified staff or knowing when it is better to go to external experts.
Pro bono work only takes you so far
Many organizations realize that there communications efforts need to be more professional but they don’t believe that they can afford to pay for it. So they wait until a communications firm that primarily works with for-profit businesses offers to do work for charities for free and hope to be selected. Or they go directly and ask a firm for free work–especially if it has a reputation for saying yes.
On the upside, you normally get high quality work and much more than you could ever possibly afford from that firm.
But there is a price to be paid:
- A one-off effort can leave you without being able to do your future communications at a similar level of quality and creativity. Will your next brochure look as professional? Can you use the brand image properly or will the logo be distorted on materials? Or the colours don’t match?
- Even if you get the same free help on an annually for your report to your community or a major fundraiser, what does your communications look like for the rest of the year? Can you hand a set to a potential donor or board member and be equally proud that they effectively represent your organization? Is the messaging consistent?
- An ongoing arrangement such as to create and maintain a website might be possible but because you’re not a paying customer, your projects by definition are less important than the paying customers who are the firms bread and butter. Your projects may get done but they may not be able to be responsive to your timelines and/or the quality of the finished product may not be what it would be if you were paying.
The solution: You’re better off to have communications expertise in-house and/or to have a long-term relationship with a communications firm or proven professionals in fields such as graphic design. People that you can count on day in and day out. People who understand your mission and vision and can help you deliver on it.
You can value communications without paying
In a discussion on Twitter, it was suggested to me that it’s not necessary to pay for communications to value it. I now agree it is possible.
Your organization may be resourceful and be able to find a way to consistently produce quality communications materials. You may be fortunate for example and find a skilled volunteer or a team that can be counted on to produce work for you year round as if they were getting paid. You may even be able to establish an arrangement with a communications firm that avoids the pitfalls I’ve pointed out.
I am confident that organizations able to organizations that value communications but never pay for internal or external expertise are the exception.
You get what you pay for
Charities hire staff and outside experts to ensure critical services receive the attention and expertise they require to deliver on their mission and strive for their vision. Is communications one of those critical services for your organization? If not, are you content paying the price to get your communications for free?
Free can help you do more
I’m a big believer in getting the biggest bang for your buck.
If your organization values communications, I believe that taking advantage of offers to get free work can be smart. Resources are tight. Such an opportunity can help you to do more or do it better than if you relied solely upon what you can afford to pay.
But be sure first that you can answer yes to the question: Does your organization value communications? Otherwise, you need to be prepared to pay the price for free communications.
Think about why your organization should value communications–and then take actions that reflect the valuable role played by how you connect your target audiences to your key messages.