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The Benefits & Hazards of Pro Bono Work

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Over the years, we’ve made the decision to offer design services ‘pro bono’ to a select few non-profit clients. Usually, the circumstances behind our decision to take on work of this sort result from one of the following:

  • – We’re slow and have the time to offer our services for a charitable cause we support.
  • – The non-profit serves a membership with potential clients for us.
  • – A combination of the first two.

Having made the decision to take on this sort of work a few times, here are some observations we’ve come to (sometimes, by way of a tough learning curve…)

Let’s start with the reasoning behind taking on free work. Suppose your rationale falls into the Reason #1 camp, ‘We’re slow. We want to do work for a cause we support.’ Here are some thoughts:

Doing work for a cause you feel strongly support is something I would never criticize.

Unless you’re so slow that you’re having trouble keeping the lights on.

In which case you might want to stop playing the ‘long game’ and get on the phone with everyone you’ve ever done work for and try to tease more work out of them. Or just angle for some possible referrals. One thing’s for sure: the development time to complete most pro bono projects is likely to exceed the ‘short term’ time frame you should be working within in when times are slow. But, if your bottom line is decent, go for it. Just remember this: working for a non profit is not the same as working for many private clients. If you’re accustomed to a ‘top down’ decision making chain driven by a marketing director, CMO or business owner, you’re in for a wake up call. Most non profit or business associations are driven by multiple personalities and decision making is lateralized (did I just make up a word?) across committees and personnel. If you think this project is something you’ll just knock out the door and move on from, think again.

If your rationale for taking on the work falls into the Reason #2 camp (The association caters to a membership that fits right into your firm’s sweet spot of potential customers…) then you should bear the following in mind:

As mentioned above, a conceit many designers have about taking on pro bono work is that it will be something they can kick out the door quickly. After all, you’re doing work for free, right? It’s obvious that a client that you’ve volunteered to do work for will have a lot of decisions made beforehand and, owing to the fact that you’re providing work gratis, their expectations will be low, right?

(Long pause.) Ummmm, ‘Noooooo…’

Several challenges are implicit to working with non-profits:

  • They’re staffed by volunteers. Volunteers have a way of walking away from commitments when other life urgencies arise. This can radically affect timing and, often, completely eliminates the possibility of predictable time lines. This, in turn, plays Hell with the simple calculation you made about the worth of the venture when you began. “It’ll take this while I’m slow and, after it’s finished, it will yield work by way of exposure and new relationships.”
  • The work you’re doing has no budget attached to it. As the provider of these services, I know what you’re thinking. ‘Since there’s no real budget for this work, the client’s ambitions will be modest.’ Here’s what some in the association might be thinking, ‘Since there’s no budget for this work, we can ask for whatever scope we desire!’ See how different interpretations of a simple condition within a seemingly simple transaction can make your life difficult?

There are, however, other ways, taking on a pro bono client every now and then can enhance your experience as a working professional. One very positive up side we’ve found has to do with the the type of professionals you’ll end up working with as clients. Many of the volunteers (or paid managers) who assume project management roles in associations are geniuinely committed, competent professionals. Their reasons for getting involved originate in a genuinely altruistic commitment to the betterment of their professions. So, although the benefits and assumptions you might have coming into a ‘pro bono’ relationship might not work out as originally planned, you very well might end up meeting and working with some of the most engaging, committed professionals in your industry. While you’re jonesing off all that good Karma, though, just don’t let the experience leave you bankrupt.

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