October 11, 2012

Pro Bono Is Good For Your Soul

“To whom much is given, much is required.” Yeah, that’s from the Bible – Luke 12:48 – but some of you might refer to it as part of karma, or what you put out there comes back to you.

Pro bono comes from the Latin, meaning “for the good” (I can get you in touch with my Jesuit-schooled, Latin-speaking father, who will verify that for me). There are many nonprofit organizations that are dedicated to doing good, but they don’t have the funds to pay a designer, web developer, marketing/advertising agency, or writer. They still need those services if they’re to be successful, so they rely on the goodwill of people to provide those services, either for free or for a reduced cost.

Attorneys are often required to perform so many hours of pro bono services, under the direction of a supervising attorney or judge, before they can graduate from law school or be admitted to the bar. In September 2012, New York instituted a rule, fully implemented by 2015, that requires lawyers to perform 50 hours of pro bono work  as a condition of getting their license, according to the Wall Street Journal, and more than 20 law schools around the nation require pro bono work.

What services or even products do you offer that you could carve some away to help those who are helping others? Maybe an organization needs a bookkeeper or accountant. Maybe they need a marketing person. Be creative. Look at your skills or products and see what you can offer

Why pro bono?

Let’s get the selfish stuff out of the way. Pro bono is a great way to get some eyeballs on your company. It’s good for networking (many of the people on non-profit boards run their own companies or are in a position to hire or recommend someone like you, so it might as well be you). You’re promoting yourself and your company by giving back, making yourself look so altruistic. If you’re lucky, you’ll have some free rein to do some fun creative work. This is a good opportunity to create some pieces that will make your portfolio look good (but never at the expense of the organization’s marketing objectives or branding).

You have a skill or product that others need, and considering how much you’re probably charging your other clients, perhaps the least you can do is offer some of what you have. Besides, think of all the warm fuzzies you will have when you’re done, because you did something for the greater good. Sometimes those warm fuzzies will have to be generated from within, because you won’t get it from the people you’re helping. You didn’t do good for the praise, did you?

Crunch the numbers and see if it’s feasible

You still have bills to pay, so you’ll have to decide if you can afford to take on a pro bono client. Can you afford to give them free services or products, or the same at a reduced rate? Several designers I know take on one pro bono client a year, so they don’t get spread too thin.

I have one pro bono client who gets my services for free, and another one who’s been with me for a while who gets my agency rate, and I throw in free services occasionally. Unless it’s a tiny project, that’s the limit of my pro bono work. I just built a free website for the former client and had considerable creative license. In return, he was very generous in the amount of time I had to create it (I asked for this), because I was fitting it into my paid production schedule. I got to try something I hadn’t done before, so I got the learning experience and something I’ll be happy to add to my portfolio.

How to behave

  • Get a contract, even if you’re working for free. Copyright has to be released in writing, and the contract protects both you and the client from any craziness that can pop up. Best to lay out expectations for both parties, like (trying) to only deal with one decision maker. Put it in the contract.
  • Don’t complain about the client to others (see the next section). It’s unprofessional. It’s hard, I know. You’re doing all this work for a song, and they’re just so ungrateful, huh? So have a sit-down with them and work it out. There is absolutely nothing wrong in letting the client know the value of the work you’re doing, but don’t be arrogant about it.
  • I have been known to occasionally say to the client, “I’m doing this for free. Let’s not make the designer crazy.” This usually happens when one person tells you to do something, another has you change it, and another has you change it back. Really try to deal with only one person in the organization.
  • Give the client your best efforts, but understand they’re still the client, and they don’t have to like or accept what you’ve given them. Treat them like you would your regular clients. Plus, acting like an idiot doesn’t help with your selfish reasons for doing good.

The downside of pro bono

  • Despite your best effort to only deal with one person, and despite promises made at the contract-signing, the fact is, decisions are made by committee in non-profits, and everyone on the committee needs to feel invested in the project. If you can’t or won’t do something they’re asking for, or their request is ill-advised, have a good explanation ready.
  • It may take forever for the committee to make decisions. It’s the nature of the beast. They only get together so often. You can impress upon them how this will affect their deadlines, and encourage them to have more-frequent interactions for this project.
  • Forget ego. There’s every chance that your award-winning idea will be eviscerated before it ever leaves the room. At which point you ask yourself, “Am I doing this for my own glory, or to give them what they want/need for their organization, because I want to help?”
  • Alas, Jeff Fisher, in , writes, “Unfortunately, our friends at the Internal Revenue Service don’t see a great deal of value in the gifting of time, talent or services. The Internal Revenue Service states: ‘Contributions you cannot deduct at all include the value of your time or services. Although you cannot deduct the value of your time or services, you can deduct the expenses you incur while donating your services to a qualified organization.’”
  • They may forget to say thanks. ‘Nuff said. Do it anyway.
  • All your selfish reasons for doing it may not pan out. Do it anyway.
  • They maybe the worst clients you’ve ever had. ‘Nuff said. Finish the project. You’re a professional.

I have some of the fondest memories (and some of the darkest) of some pro bono work I’ve done, and I’ve even made some friends. I would do it all again. Keep your ears open for an organization in your area that can use a helping hand, and let it be yours. It’s good for your soul.

Image Credit: Yuri Arcurs / Shutterstock

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