After five years of double-digit growth, corporate charitable contributions are likely to be flat this year, according to a recent study by The Chronicle of Philanthropy, but public relations agencies—hit as hard as anybody by the economic downturn—appear to be maintaining their level of community activity in terms of pro bono work and volunteerism.
According to Curt Weeden, director of the Contributions Academy, which trains corporate giving executives, “We see companies pulling back their cash giving programs as the quarterly financial reports come out.” In fact, 55 of the 91 companies reporting to the Chronicle said they expected their donations to be about the same or less this year than in 2000.
But a quick survey of public relations firms with strong traditions of corporate giving revealed no similar cuts—perhaps because so much of the philanthropic activity in the PR industry comes in the form of pro bono work, and with the downturn many firms are finding that employees have time on their hands, perhaps because public relations firms understand better than most the need for companies to contribute to the societies in which they operate.
Whatever the reason, corporate philanthropy remains robust in the public relations business, with agencies big and small, publicly owned and independent, making significant contributions.
Through its 49 offices around the world, Fleishman-Hillard gives more than $5 million annually to a wide variety of charitable causes, through more than 30,000 hours of time donated by Fleishman-Hillard employees. According to Dave Senay, “We believe that our people are by far our greatest asset, and there is no more a significant donation we can give than the extremely valuable time of our staff.”
Individual Fleishman-Hillard offices also contribute hard dollars via direct donations to local causes on a discretionary and as-needed basis. “The kind of contributions we make is decided by our managers locally in each of our offices,” says Senay. “We believe they are in the best position to make decisions on causes to support locally.” He estimates that the firm made around $500,000 in cash donations last year.
While managers have a large degree of autonomy, the firm does focus a significant amount of its giving on specific causes. It supports children in need through organizations including the Special Olympics, The Boys & Girls Clubs, the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, L.A.’s Best, March of Dimes, and Ronald McDonald Houses. 
In the firm’s St. Louis headquarters, employees have established a committee dedicated to supporting charitable causes in the St. Louis metropolitan area. This committee, named the FHilanthropy Team, includes employees from all levels of the organization and deals exclusively in “sweat equity” programs.
Ruder Finn chairman David Finn, meanwhile, estimates that his firm’s pro bono work on behalf of last year’s Millennium Summit for World Peace—an event that brought together more than 1,000 religious and spiritual leaders from around the world under the auspices of the United Nations—cost more than $1 million in employee time.
That effort was a continuation of the work that Ruder Finn has done for the UN in recent years, work that evolved from Finn’s personal friendship with secretary general Kofi Annan. “I met him when he was the assistant secretary general and I was doing some work for the United Nations School,” explains Finn. “When he was named secretary general, I offered to help any way I could. The UN has about 600 people working in its information department, so to avoid charges that he was spending too much on PR, I said we would work on a pro bono basis.”
Ruder Finn also worked with the World Economic Summit last year, helping the business group attract religious and spiritual leaders to its annual meeting in Davis, and raised money for victims of the Indian earthquake, sending out a memo to employees promising to match any donations. And the firm’s next project may be a UN education effort focused on AIDS in Africa. Ruder Finn is in discussions about creating an education program that would be rolled out in a single nation and could ultimately be adapted throughout the region.
Back when it was Mona Meyer McGrath & Gavin, the Minneapolis office of Weber Shandwick Worldwide set the standard for organized philanthropic activity by PR firms. Like many Twin Cities companies, MMM&G donated 2 percent of its pretax income to charitable causes, with a focus on those serving children and families. But the firm also provided the equivalent of another 3 percent in pro bono consultation to nonprofit organizations. Its annual giving report listed the individual volunteer activities of more than 50 employees.
That commitment has been sustained—and even expanded—since MMM&G was acquired by Shandwick, and ultimately by Interpublic. According to partner Sara Gavin, “The more we become part of a big organization, the more it becomes important for us to do things on a local level that connect us to the local community. And Weber Shandwick has been very supportive. We have done some knowledge sharing with other offices.”
Last year’s biggest project was the creation of a public relations plan for the Children’s Law Center of Minnesota, which represents the 19,000 Minnesota children who live in foster care. According to CLC executive director Gail Chang Bohr, “Shandwick took the time to get to know the Children’s Law Center and to understand our mission, strategies, and activities to carry out that mission. Shandwick communicated the essence of our mission and the results will have a long lasting impact for the center.”
The firm also handled major projects for Athletes Committed to Education Students and Free Arts of Minnesota, and for the eighth consecutive year hosted a full-day “Telling Your Story” workshop at the editorial offices of the Star Tribune at which 20 selected nonprofit organizations got to explain their mission and their needs.
Says Gavin, “We treat our pro bono accounts exactly as if they were paying clients. Each is assigned an account team that helps identify the client communication opportunities and needs. The account team helps each organization develop creative, results-oriented public relations programs to meet those needs.”
Smaller firms with publicly-traded parents continue to make their own significant contributions. KVO Public Relations, a subsidiary of Fleishman-Hillard headquartered in Portland, Ore., matches employee contributions up to a maximum of $500 per employee or supports volunteerism to the same dollar equivalent. The firm also provides pro bono support to organizations selected on the basis of need and employee commitment.
Cone, acquired two years ago by Omnicom, used some of the income from that deal to fund and build a Habitat for Humanity house. The firm also has a formal volunteerism program that allows four hours of paid leave each month for volunteer activities.
The MWW Group, headquartered in East Rutherford, NJ, and now a part of Golin/Harris, gives each employee 10 hours off each year to perform work in the community. The firm also participates in several activities, including an annual letters to Santa campaign during which it fulfils the wishes of 200 of the poorest children in New Jersey, having Santa deliver toys, clothing, and furniture. The firm itself pays for many of the gifts, and secures donations for the rest.
More recently, the firm helped built several Habitat for Humanity homes in Paterson, NJ. Nearly 40 employees from MWW put in two full days of work to help build three new homes for local families. Says agency president Michael Kempner, “It was a wonderful opportunity for us to give something back to the community, and for our employees to work together outside the office.”
Meanwhile, many independent firms are equally committed to philanthropic involvement, and take an equally strategic approach.
Padilla Speer Beardsley has a history of community involvement that goes back to the firm’s earliest days, and is one of a handful of firms that publishes a formal Community Giving Report each year. A formal time contribution program allocates between 500 and 700 hours annually to three or four projects aligned with PSB’s areas of interest. The agency chooses programs at the beginning of the year (reserving some time for requests that come in throughout the year) based on three criteria:
  • Opportunities for staff professional development
  • Visibility and networking potential for the agency
  • Ability to make a difference
The firm also has an informal time contribution program. All PSB officers serve on at least one non-profit board and usually engage other staff in ad hoc assignments. Says agency president Lynn Casey, “We also encourage staff to volunteer outside of work. I’m always encouraged when I see the roll-up of organizations in the back of our annual giving report.”
This year’s list includes financial support for the American Heart Association, Camp Fire Boys & Girls, the Guthrie Theater, Minneapolis Youth Diversion Program and the United Way, and pro bono support for the American Red Cross, the Domestic Abuse Project, The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, and the Public Relations Student Society of America. In all, the firm worked with close to 100 organizations during 2000.
Among the highlights: the firm worked on the launch of Give Back Day, a statewide movement during that encouraged Minnesotans to put the extra hour of daylight savings time to figure out ways to give more dollars to charity in 2001; and it provided cause-marketing support, crisis preparedness and all national and regional media relations support for Girls on the Move, an Outward Bound program that raised awareness of issues facing young women.
Richmond-based Carter Ryley Thomas is 30 years younger than PSB, but it has made a point of giving back to the community since it opened its doors. The firm works with two cancer charities: Noah’s Children, a support group for families of children with cancer; and Link, an organization that works with employers to help them understand the issues facing workers who are dealing with cancer. The company also encourages volunteerism among its employees, who donate time to Big Brothers and Big Sisters, the local Arts Council, and a community schools program.
“It’s a big part of who we are,” says founding partner J.R. Hipple. “We have a great sense of obligation to the community.”    
Atlanta-based Duffey Communications, meanwhile, has a formal program through which the company adopts five or six pro bono projects a year—out of close to 100 requests for pro bono services evaluated by the firm’s internal marketing dept. Says agency president Lee Duffey, “Pro bono opportunities are voted upon by the staff. If there is widespread interest and commitment from staff, we adopt the project.”
Over the past year the firm has donated pro bono public relations and marketing services to the American Electronics Association, the Atlanta Dogwood Festival, Hands on Atlanta, the High Museum of Art, the Atlanta Press Club and PRSA.
Cynics may question the motives of these firms, and others that make substantial contributions to nonprofit groups. They may suggest that it’s “just good public relations.” But the majority of PR agency CEOs insist that they give something back to the community because they believe it’s something all good companies should do.
“We mostly do it because it’s the right thing to do,” says MWW’s Kempner. “We are a successful company in the communities we operate and it’s important to give something back. It’s also a great team building experience for our staff. We really don’t do it to get any benefit from our clients. It’s for our communities and our staff.”
David Finn goes even further: “I’ve always hated the definition that says PR is doing good and getting credit for it, because doing good should be its own reward,” he says. “Philanthropic activity helps establish the character of the firm. We don’t do it because we think it will bring in business, although we have been approached by clients because they know how close we are to the UN.”
According to Senay, “We support cultural and social awareness organizations because we believe such efforts reflect the Fleishman-Hillard corporate philosophy of respect for the individual and personal commitment. This tradition has continued and grown, office by office and in city by city, throughout our system over the years. The rationale is simple: we believe it is vital for a business to be a good corporate citizen wherever it operates. We tell this to our clients. We practice it ourselves.”
That’s not to say that philanthropic activity doesn’t have a payoff. Lee Duffey cites four reasons for his firm’s involvement in pro bono activities: a belief that companies of all shapes and sizes have a responsibility to give back to their communities; the opportunity for staff to develop and sharpen their skills; exposure for the agency; and increased morale. “Pro bono clients are extremely appreciative of our efforts, which helps keep staff morale high,” he says.
The impact on employees is the most cited business rationale for pro bono work and volunteer programs.
“We believe having our people involved in philanthropy plays a key role in rounding out their experiences at Fleishman-Hillard and contributes to both employee satisfaction and retention,” says Senay. “That employee satisfaction, in turn, creates a strong and positive spillover effect on their work with clients. That is why we chose to use our 2000 holiday card to clients as an opportunity to communicate our commitment to charitable giving.”
“It’s a great experience for employees,” says Casey. “It’s usually something different from their practice, and often an account staffer’s first leadership opportunity prior to account management.”
But PSB chairman John Beardsley offers a broader perspective. “Six years ago, social scientist Robert Putnam documented that more Americans are ‘bowling alone,’ that since the 1960s we have been ‘pulling apart from one another and our communities’ and depleting the social capital that contributes to the economic and psychological health of our society. Social capital is created in social networks, and that is why they have economic value. So the weakening of social networks is worrisome.
“There is no expectation that our firm will gain [from its corporate giving] but there is every expectation that our employees will help to increase the social capital of the community, and perhaps even make some new friends along the way.”
Perhaps it’s because philanthropy is values-based that none of the people we spoke with planned to cut back, despite hard times. “Support for community and charitable organizations is one of our core values and we have not considered eliminating it in the current economy,” says KVO president Sharon Van Sickle.
“If anything, our anecdotal evidence around the F-H system tells us the downturn has had the opposite effect on our pro-bono work,” Senay says. “It seems to be increasing, perhaps because available charitable dollars out there are shrinking.”
Casey agrees. “We’ve taken on a couple more pro bono projects in order to keep good people productive and feeling good about their contributions as we try to weather the downturn with no layoffs.”