There are several immutable communications and negotiation rules that hold true for any type of business, industry and even country of business. These aren’t difficult to follow, nor are they difficult to understand. These truths present a framework for mutual respect and consideration. But yet, they are disregarded more often than one would expect.

The following is a chain of three emails between myself and a representative from a company that signed up to provide pro bono work for a project I was working on in return for promotional consideration. The tone and verbiage are exactly what should NOT be used if coming to a mutual agreement is the goal.

Note that the emails are presented from the most recent. To see the emails in context scroll down and read from the last image and scroll up. .

In-Kind Sponsorships ≠ Free Work

In all business agreements, even those in which no money is exchanged, it is vital to ensure that all members of each party working on a project review and agree to the terms of the collaboration. It is clear from the phrases outlined in yellow that this member of the vendor team had not reviewed the terms of the collaboration or the value exchange in which both the client and the vendor had agreed to.

Briefing all members of your team involved in a sponsorship or pro bono project is vital to ensuring a good experience for all parties involved. It is especially important for businesses that use sponsorship of services as a marketing tactic to promote their brand. An email like this from a company representative can be just as damaging to your business’ reputation as bad work product.

Negotiate for a Mutual Win

Those sentences outlined in green do not provide the other party with any room to maneuver for a mutually satisfactory outcome. The adversarial tone of these statements not only paints the other party in a corner, it breeds ill-will and even has the potential of generating long-term animosity. We ultimately, terminated our relationship with the business in question.

Stay Professional

Regardless of what one might feel toward a business associate or client, it is important to maintain a professional tone in all communications. While it might be difficult during the “heat of battle” to maintain decorum, it’s important to remember that both the vendor and the client are on the same team and working toward the same goals. The condescension employed by the author in this case did nothing to move the project forward. On the contrary, since the relationship was terminated, all the hours of work that the author described in the email was for naught.

Don’t Make Your Business Issue, Your Client’s

Do not take on a pro bono project unless you are confident you can complete the assignment to that of “paying client” standards. Do not agree to a pro bono project unless you agree to the terms of the collaboration. While it may be tempting to downgrade pro bono work when something else that is perceived as more important comes along (see sentence notated by the numeral “3”) the client is still counting on you to complete what was agreed upon.

By indicating that there are other activities that take priority, the author not only makes the business’ internal scheduling issue the client’s problem, the author also makes clear to the client just where they stand.

The Client Owns Their Brand – Always

This particular point applies to creative agencies. One of the cardinal rules of agency-client relations is that the client owns their brand. Developing creative is a very subjective matter and ultimately, clients have the final say on what creative is used. There is more leeway for the agency to insert its “flair” in pro bono projects but the client still has to agree to the final product because it is their brand mark and brand that is being used.

A pro bono project is not carte blanche for the agency to do as it pleases. When there are creative differences that cannot be resolved, it is the agency’s prerogative to “fire” the client just as it is the client’s to terminate the relationship. But this outcome benefits no one, regardless of the situation.

If each party observes the truths outlined above, this outcome can, more often than not, be avoided.

Photo of Kangaroos courtesy of Adnaan.




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