Is taking on pro bono work ever a good idea? Actually, yes it is!

Products mentioned
It won’t just make you feel good

The age-old debate about doing work for free .will likely never end. However, goodwill work is not a one-way street where only the client benefits. Terms such as experience and profile are often overused, but they’re actually two of several smart reasons to get altruistic and take on pro bono work.

This piece will look at some of those reasons, talk about why (and when) you should take on pro bono work, and discuss how to make inroads and accept opportunities!

Clarification: Pro bono work isn’t related to the guy from U2

First, let’s get some terms defined right out of the gate. Pro bono is a Latin phrase (just like Lorem Ipsum), that essentially means “carrying out work for the public good, without charge.” It’s normally used in legal fields, although there’s a lot of crossover use.

If you do even cursory research into the subject of pro bono work, you’ll notice there’s a cyclical, aeons-old debate about whether you should ever work for zero payment. This discussion is likely never going to reach a unanimous resolution.

Just to be clear, free in this context is very different from pro bono, although a lot of the distinction comes down to circumstance and mindset.

For example, if you’re a complete beginner to your chosen industry, you’ll often have to do free work initially to build up a portfolio. However, someone who’s transferred their skills from another area (with the contacts to match), will likely see the reputation-building initial projects as pro bono work.

The crux of the argument, in our opinion, is that it’s hard for many people to know when they’re being exploited. Twitter accounts such as For Exposure (NSFW) highlight how many sneaky confidence tricksters are out there, who are only concerned with circumventing paying for work. There’s plenty of empirical data on the subject, too, although the situation is probably not as bad as these sites make it seem.

Why (and when) you should eat beans for a month and do work for free

Pro Bono Work Beans

The negatives discussed above can make all non-paying work (or even entertaining the notion) seem like a thoroughly bad idea. However, you there are plenty of upsides, too, and you may be surprised to learn that pro bono work can become part and parcel of your overall service. For example:

  • Open-source projects, such as all of the ways to contribute to WordPress, are technically pro bono work.
  • Many WordPress companies give up five percent of their time to help improve the platform and give back to the community, so pro bono work can still be a part of your day-to-day.

Of course, these types of situations are completely under your control (i.e., you choose to pursue them, rather than receiving unsolicited requests).

When it comes to offers of doing work for free, they shouldn’t eat into any paid projects you might have.


In addition, if you get a lurching feeling that you’re being taken advantage of, get out of Dodge immediately!

Benefits of pro bono work

OK, enough with the negatives. There are plenty of benefits to devoting a portion of your time to pro bono work, such as:

  • Developing your expertise in an unfamiliar area, or experimenting on non-paying projects where you have the chance to do so.
  • Boosting your profile and outreach in your own community. This is most relevant to fledgling developers. However, those with narrow experience in one niche who wish to branch out could also employ this approach.
  • Obtaining a new addition to your resume.
  • Using the work you undertake to conduct outreach, or make inroads to an area you’d like to work in.
  • Cultivating a warm fuzzy feeling inside.

For a real-world example of pro bono work making a difference on both sides of the fence, check out Soliant Consulting’s post on the subject. It talks about how pro bono projects have benefitted both the company as a whole, and the lives of others around the world. If that isn’t enough to convince you, you may want to check to see if you’re actually human.

How to hamstring your principles to seek out pro bono work

Before you go looking for pro bono projects, you should do some research on what other developers have encountered when carrying out this type of work. Since time is arguably the most valuable resource you have, double- and triple-checking that this is a path you want to pursue will help solidify your decision. It might be that you’d prefer to give your time in a different way — and that’s fine.

Once you’ve decided to take the plunge, making it clear that you accept pro bono (not free) work on your public-facing social media channels and website will be a smart idea. It will also help to read about what clients will consider before choosing you, in order to tailor copy accordingly.

Working with a pro bono client is going to be much like any other endeavor — you’ll have constant discussions about the project, and you’ll deliver based on milestones (or some similar method). The best piece of advice we can give you is to treat each project as though it’s your highest-paid project to date, deliver the very best work you can, and knock it out of the park!


Regardless of whether you’re a newbie looking to build a portfolio, or an experienced developer giving your time to a good cause, there’s plenty of merit in working without getting paid. Whether you call it free or pro bono work, you’re able to pick and choose where your time and effort goes.

Remember, many WordPress companies now give five percent of their time back to the community — and it can benefit you to follow their example. Pro bono work doesn’t have to be degrading or income restricting, and it can actually open new doors and lead to new opportunities!

Image by: Tyler Nix on Unsplash