hand holding heart to represent doing pro bono work

When should you do pro bono work?

6 min read
Lisa Stambaugh

Is a professional designer obligated to give back to their community in the form of pro bono work? While the request might appeal to your emotional side, you should evaluate it just like any other business decision.

Pro bono work (from the Latin, “pro bono public,” or “work done without compensation for the public good”) is an admirable way to contribute to your community and give back to society. Since “pro bono” also means “I’m not getting paid for this by choice,” you should carefully consider doing this type of work, and manage it with a clear set of business policies.

What’s in it for you?

There are potential benefits to investing time in doing pro bono work. These benefits may include:

Marketing: Get the attention of potential clients who can pay for your services.

Networking: Local projects provide exposure to board members and other community leaders actively supporting the organization.

Creative autonomy: Freedom is a powerful motivator for designers, and pro bono work can provide an opportunity to experiment with new tools or techniques.

Portfolio: What better way to extend your website portfolio? Compensation is irrelevant when someone asks to see work samples.

Satisfaction: Pro bono work can satisfy your need to contribute to causes you genuinely care about, with a skill not all volunteers can offer.

Pro bono work is not without challenges

That said, pro bono work can have considerable costs, including:

Time cannibalization: It consumes time otherwise available for billable tasks. If you need to maximize paying work and maintain high quality on all of your work, then pro bono work can quickly go from opportunity to imposition.

Frustration: Personality clashes or abuse of your time can outweigh the benefits. When the work goes from pleasure to dreaded obligation, it’s time to leave.

"This will be great exposure" gets my immediate rejection in response.

Work devaluation: Giving away your professional work can make it harder to convince others it’s worth paying for. Starting a conversation with “We have no money but this will be great exposure” gets my immediate rejection in response. They’re not doing me any favors, it’s the other way around. While there might be benefits in personal connection through the organization, the actual exposure is not a benefit that can be verified, nor should it be promised. In fact, wide exposure as someone who gives away work is not even desirable — unless you’re anxious to receive many more requests for free work.

Making pro bono work for everyone

Here are my three key pieces of advice regarding pro bono work:

1. Set firm project acceptance/rejection criteria.

Know your boundaries before you’re asked. It’s easier to say no when you start off with “Sorry, my policy is…”

Free or semi-pro bono? If I take the initiative to volunteer, it’s free. If solicited, I offer a discount, which I call “partial pro-bono” work. If they disagree, they care more about the handout than the work quality, and are welcome to find another volunteer.

Is discounted work considered pro bono? I say yes. With a 50-percent discount, I’m getting paid for half of the work, and volunteering for the other half. Partial pro bono clients get an invoice just like regular clients, with items billed at full rate. They also get an additional line item showing their discount, and I have QuickBooks records to show exactly how much work was comped throughout the year.

Trade-offs: In a situation where I’d be volunteering anyway, focusing on a contribution that no one else can make relieves me of other tasks. While managing my kids’ high school website for six years, I had a ready excuse to decline requests for tasks I was not interested in – although sometimes I said yes if I enjoyed them. Bake sales? Absolutely. Field Trips? You bet. Photocopying and stapling? Not so much.

Location: The organization or project must be in my community. I want the opportunity to attend their events and do some matchmaking.

Ownership: I won’t take on maintenance of a site developed by someone else. I only take on a new design project, where I have complete control over the implementation and quality.

Deal-breakers: I’m very clear about the triggers that will lead me to resign, including feelings of frustration or abuse, repeated violation of my policies, and too many last-minute urgent requests.

2. Set realistic expectations.

As with paying clients, clear expectations are key to getting everyone on the same page, and assuring the best possible experience for all.

Response time: Paying clients are promised same-day or next-day response to all emails. Pro bono clients might have to wait a bit longer, depending on my workload.

Efficient communication: I require a single point of contact who consolidates content, requests and feedback.

Effort on their part to facilitate my work: Meetings, calls and work are on my schedule, at my convenience. For six years, a local nonprofit’s development director has a standing appointment every Wednesday afternoon. Not just a standing appointment, but she arrives here with Starbucks in hand, and an organized to-do list. We review web and print projects and identify what she must track down during the next week. I’m rarely interrupted between meetings with requests because she knows how to organize everything for me.

3. Negotiate alternate compensation.

Working for free or a discount? Don’t be embarrassed to ask for the following:

Design credit: Expect a design credit on the site, just as for paying clients.

Sponsorship credit: For organizations with events, request a mention in the program, pre-event posters and ads – any publicity sponsors receive. I’m pleased to be listed as an in-kind sponsor whenever possible.

Membership: If available, I request a free business membership, which usually costs more than individual memberships. In exchange for managing our local art gallery’s website as a volunteer, I’m one of 15 business members whose names are highlighted on their website, in their newsletter, and on signs at all gallery events.

Other perks: As a musical theatre junkie, I happily manage the local musical theatre company’s website as a volunteer, and receive free tickets to all performances, plus an open invitation to sit in on rehearsals. Now here’s an insider bonus not available to everyone: their professional choreographer enthusiastically helped my husband and daughter create the elaborate father-daughter dance for her wedding!

In summary

Facilitate the best possible engagement by treating pro bono clients just like paying clients:

  • Set criteria to guide acceptance, rejection, and dismissal.
  • Establish clear expectations about behavior and deliverables.
  • Enforce firm policies about commitments and appropriate compensation.

This approach has worked well for me. Add your comments to let us know what works for you.