10 June 2006

Pro bono goes unprofessional

In May, I blogged about some pro bono work I was doing. I'm not going to mention the name of the organisation but for me the events that unfolded were a salutary lesson in when to walk away.

Almost two years ago, this organisation (that I shall henceforth refer to as X) was in dire straits. It was bound by an unworkable constitution, its membership had fallen to an all-time low of just 12 members and only one committee member remained. This committee member co-opted three others and a decision was made to overhaul X completely with a new legal structure. As X's cause is something I care passionately about, I was quite flattered 18 months back to be asked to be a regional representative. I took on the role gladly - it was purely voluntary and I wasn't even a member as membership had been suspended by then while matters were sorted out.

I spent a lot of time and energy on X, including helping to draft a new constitution (which was never used) and doing various bits of copywriting, editorial work and giving advice on PR stuff.

Last month, I decided to step down as regional representative, for personal reasons. The committee asked me to stay on behind the scenes and continue to help with press and PR. In the committee's own words, they hadn't a clue and were reliant on my expertise. I agreed to do this.

Ahead of the relaunch of X with its new legal status, I drafted a press release and also a relaunch announcement which was to be disseminated across the internet to the community with which X works. A couple of drafts were prepared of the latter and I handed over the final version just before my holiday.

The announcement went public while I was abroad and I was deeply unhappy on my return to discover that an extra paragraph had been inserted into the copy. Had I been around, I would have vetoed a crucial half-sentence that, in my view, was misleading and potentially very damaging. But, of course, I was in Paris and unable to do anything.

It was too late - the damage was done. On one particular discussion forum, furious debate was raging, much of it based on this erroneous phrase that I had not condoned. The committee were handling the criticisms very badly. Getting hold of X's committee members was not easy. But eventually on Wednesday I made contact and made my unhappiness clear. I followed up the telephone conversation with an e-mail, to put my concerns in black and white. I wrote a lengthy piece of PR advice on how best to repair the damage to X's reputation.

One of the committee members rang me a couple of hours later to discuss my concerns and advice. We talked at length about strategy to make amends and I hung up, feeling more secure that the committee would handle things better. That feeling didn't last long. Within 12 hours, X had responded to an inflammatory piece of criticism with some very childish remarks - the equivalent of throwing toys out of the pram.

I was appalled. All of my advice had been completely ignored.

As this was the second time they had decided to forge ahead without checking in with me, I did the only thing I could do, and dissociated myself from X. I e-mailed them to explain why. My integrity as a professional wordsmith was on the line, as well as my reputation within the community X claims to represent.

Yesterday I felt sad and angry. Today, I feel more sanguine about the whole experience. I have learned a lesson that doing pro bono work is only worthwhile if you know that the time and energy you put into it is going to be acknowledged and used. In this case, it wasn't.

No comments: