Want to start a non-profit foundation at your agency? Start here first.

Want to start a non-profit foundation at your agency? Start here first.
Written by: Karl Sakas

Want to start a non-profit foundation, as a way for your agency to give back? You’re not alone—several of my clients want to start foundations, as a way to increase the impact of their work.

Problem is, starting a foundation is a big project—the legal compliance aspects alone can be a huge distraction from keeping your agency profitable. Make healthy choices—you need to take care of yourself before you can afford to take care of others.

Is there a way to make an impact before you go through the work to start and run an agency foundation? Yes! You don’t have to be a registered non-profit to donate your time—that’s what pro bono work is for. And you don’t have to shoulder the entire burden yourself—recruit other firms to help you donate more.

Let’s look at some faster, easier ways to make an impact at your agency.

Faster, easier alternatives to starting a registered non-profit foundation

Here are 7 ways you can make an impact, without the hassle, expense, and time commitment of starting a registered non-profit foundation. Remember to put on your own oxygen mask first.

Provide pro bono marketing services to a non-profit. I bet you get pitches for pro bono marketing work already. See my article on pro bono guidelines for agencies—including creating an application process—to help you get better results.

Partner with other firms to create a “grant” program to donate pro bono services to non-profits. This is more complicated than just donating services yourself, but you can make a bigger impact together (and get more PR coverage) than on your own. For agency-based examples, see the Firebelly Foundation and Chicago Cause. Here’s my article on shortcuts for partnering.

Offer “paid to volunteer” days for your team. There are two ways to handle this—give people time off to volunteer at an organization of their choice, or have your entire team go volunteer at a specific organization. I like the team-building aspects of the “everyone together” approach, but be aware it can come across as self-serving—your employees may prefer to support their own favorite organization, not yours. Either way, be sure your billable ratio can support the number of [inherently non-billable] volunteer days you offer.

Serve on a non-profit board. Lots of non-profits could benefit from objective marketing advice. Depending on the group, your role may be strategic or a mix of strategy and tactics. Being on a board can be very time-consuming, so be sure to pick an organization you believe in. Start by helping as a regular volunteer to be sure you like the group—there are always internal politics, so be sure you know what you’re getting into. And review their financials before committing, so you know their situation.

Speak at events for non-profits. For instance, I gave a keynote last year at the Triangle Nonprofit Communicators group. Non-profit marketers aren’t my target market, but I had advice that would help them—so when the organizer asked me to help, I waived my usual speaking fee.

Do billable work for non-profits. Several of my clients specialize in working with non-profits. I previously worked at an agency that specialized in digital marketing for mission-based organizations. People would ask if we had a “non-profit discount.” Our salesperson’s response was, “Almost all of our clients are non-profits. Rather than a discount, you get the benefit of our deep expertise helping non-profits achieve their mission.” Non-profit doesn’t mean small, either—many of my non-profit clients were bigger than some of my for-profit clients.

Give cash via a donor-advised fund. You can start donor-advised fund (DAF), where you donate cash or other financial instruments to an account administered by an existing charity. You lose access to what you donate, but you then advise where the DAF distributes the money.

What are other agencies doing to give back?

For examples of what some marketing agencies are doing—both with or without having an official 501(c)3 foundation—see Firebelly DesignMcKinney, and Orbit Media.

Think about the impact you want to make—that can help drive what you do, including which organizations you support.

Note that in the U.S., donating your services isn’t tax-deductible. I think it’s an especially stupid rule for professional services firms like marketing agencies (whose primary “product” is their services), but it’s reality. Speak with your accountant on specifics, including particulars if you’re based outside the United States.

Be careful in soliciting donations from other organizations—you don’t want to mis-represent yourself as being a non-profit.

Summary for your agency

Want to make an impact on the community? Here’s a summary for you and your agency:

  1. You can make an impact without starting a formal 501(c)3 non-profit foundation (or registered charity, or equivalent outside the U.S. and UK).
  2. Focus on identifying the impact you want to make, add an application process to help you manage the interest, and enlist complementary firms to help you make an even bigger impact.
  3. Look at individually-driven alternatives, including volunteer days and serving on a board.

Be sure your agency is running smoothly before you invest in charitable efforts—you can’t help others if you go out of business.

Question: How does your agency give back?

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