Seeing Eye to Eye With a Homeless Shelter

How to Produce Outstanding Pro Bono Work

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Jamie Cobb
Jamie Cobb
People are sometimes surprised (although less so in the South where I was born, raised and have spent most of my professional career) to learn that I teach Sunday School. I dress like a "creative," am current on popular culture and have an open mind and liberal leanings. I guess some think these are inconsistent with openly seeking spiritual alignment through organized religion.

But alignment is important, and I seek it everywhere and like sharing what I learn. There's the inner alignment—getting your thoughts and feelings to align like the wheels on your car. And there's the greater alignment, which deals with getting your moral values in sync with your everyday actions. Through a recent project for a homeless program in Raleigh, N.C., I discovered alignment on multiple fronts and realized that it's the key to producing exceptional pro bono work.

One weekend I bumped into a neighbor who works for an organization called the Healing Place of Wake County, a nonprofit residential recovery program for homeless adults with alcohol and drug addictions. It's a remarkably successful program (70% of clients are still drug- and alcohol-free a year after "graduation") and cost-efficient ($30 per client per day), but my neighbor said that area merchants and residents have been slow to embrace it. "Does your agency ever do any pro bono work?" she asked in a politely leading way.

I should say at this point that the agency I work for specializes in developing campaigns that help change behavior in people who live with diabetes, battle cancer, are trying to quit smoking or would otherwise benefit by adopting a healthier lifestyle and following doctors' orders. We don't produce TV spots or generate a ton of traditional advertising. As an agency, we're clearly focused on one mission with our talents and passion: We inspire change.

Turns out the Healing Place does the same.

Healing Place

Soon after that weekend conversation with my neighbor, an enthusiastic team of agency volunteers and I were working on a campaign to help educate those who live, work and shop in downtown Raleigh about the mission of the Healing Place, the program's remarkable achievements and its continuing need for support.

In a briefing, we met with several Healing Place clients and graduates, each of whom had a powerful story to tell. Their war stories defined them, but not in the depressing ways you might think. Instead, they served as evidence of how far each client has come and how much is possible. Each story was proof that the Healing Place's peer-run, 12-step, residential recovery process truly changes behaviors, which in turn changes lives.

"The Healing Place really speaks our language," a copywriter said on the drive back to the agency.

"Think how important it is," an art director replied. "This isn't just another homeless shelter. These folks have to work hard to stay there. Their lives depend on changing their behavior."

When it was time to present concepts, we set up our presentation in a conference room we call the Driver's Seat, named after psychologist Icek Ajzen's theory that people's perceptions about the control they have over their lives can have a tremendous influence on their health and their response to treatment. It seemed fitting.

The resulting "Turn the Corner" campaign, debuted last fall with the Leadership Raleigh program of the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce, was designed around the straightforward truth that the Healing Place is a catalyst for powerful change. Through new branding and a series of posters, newspaper ads, a brochure and window clings, it tells the stories of real Healing Place clients, using their own words. The photography and graphics are stark and edgy, setting the stage for tales about personal transformations, seemingly impossible journeys, and pain and sacrifice on a scale many of us could never imagine.

The campaign has generated positive visibility and local support for the Healing Place as well as attracting new donors. The organization substantially surpassed its 2009 fundraising goal of $30,000, netting $130,000 by year's end, including matching grants from a new supporter. The campaign has also won some advertising awards, and we were invited to participate in the ACT Responsible Expo in Cannes this June, honoring social and environmental campaigns from all over the world.

So what's the lesson? Plain and simple: Support a cause that shares your vision. Find an organization that thinks like you and needs what you've got but can't afford you. If your thing is digital, use your digital superpowers to build an effective website. If branding is your lifeblood, create a powerful brand identity. Pro bono isn't the time to leave your sweet spot or to train junior staff. Pro bono is the time to be fully aligned with your client both in values and in the skills and resources needed for a particular challenge. When you have this alignment, both you and your agency will do your best work, and you'll find special joy in the process.

Jamie Cobb is executive creative director of MicroMass Communications in Cary, N.C.
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