Pro Bono Work Helps Firms Fight Economic Slump

The Wall Street Journal reports that many small-business owners and their employees are doing more pro bono services or volunteer work as a marketing and customer-relations strategy.

An architect firm, after a 2008 revenue drop of 30%, began providing 15 to 20 hours a week in pro bono services to keep employees occupied and potentially attract future contracts. The projects later received full funding and the firm obtained several contracts, which ranged in value from $16,000 to $100,000. Bottom line: "Offering the pro bono services has given us a chance to maintain our design vigor [and] resulted in people hiring us."

A steakhouse shifted $20,000 of the company's advertising budget to pro bono work. This year, not a week goes by that the company doesn't offer its services for charity events, or give away gift cards. Bottom line: "It's worth more to do charity work than to advertise in a local magazine. It's more like guerrilla marketing. People see that we're involved in the community."

One of the beneficiaries of a tech firm was a local church, which had trouble setting up an outdoor wireless digital sign board. The company worked on the four-month project free of charge, saving the church some $7,000 to $12,000. In exchange, the company received an endorsement unlike any other. At a Mass, the pastor thanked the company in front of the congregation. "My wife says, 'It's almost like a referral from God.' "

For a small business that has lost clients or seen revenue-generating projects dry up, performing free work is a way to keep employees engaged while cultivating new relationships. Donating services to charity groups, churches, schools and other nonprofits can "increase local visibility, deepen local business ties and create opportunity for new business," says Christine Banning, vice president of marketing and communications at SCORE, a Washington-based group that provides free counseling to small businesses.

"When there are fewer opportunities, there are more choices of whom people are going to do business with," Audrey Murrell, professor of business administration at the Katz Graduate School of Business at the University of Pittsburgh says, adding that people are going to "be more influenced by the relationship that you've cultivated."

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