For any designer or artist, this topic is difficult. At the beginning of a freelance career, it is very common to be asked to do a project for free or pro bono. Here is the interesting part, it is also common in the middle of your design career and from what I understand until the last day of your design career. People honestly think they are doing you a favor by giving you the opportunity to create something for their business based on recognition only, no payment. It baffles me. I also don’t think people are not trying to be malicious. I believe they genuinely feel like they are helping you in some way. In my head I have the conversation with myself when this question arises, “You wouldn’t ask a plumber to come over and fix a leaking pipe for free, so why do you ask me?” Ironically, Jon Acuff had this same thought as well and wrote a fantastic blog and did a video about it too, take a look at both of those later on. The question arises here, how to say politely no when asked to do something pro bono and still get the work. It’s a thin tightrope to walk, but here are a few ways to think about it. It’s time to consider if you are ready to put your acrobatic skills to work!
When should you and when shouldn’t you do pro bono jobs for clients or potential clients.
When it benefits you
If the potential client has an audience that you cannot reach other than by doing this project, consider it. For example, a non-profit that you support. Non-profits have strict budgets, but they also have business owners who donate money and can afford your services. If they see you are a like minded business owner, you may find yourself with a few new clients in the long run. My advice to you in this situation is you need to set parameters in the very beginning. I have worked with many non-profits, all said and done exposure is good. If you get your name on a step and repeat or on a flyer that goes out to 5,000 people that’s considered good exposure but it doesn’t always mean you will get a job out of it. Keep it in perspective and if there are many people on a committee making decisions, make sure you have one contact only within that committee. You DO NOT want to be part of an email war about why the guy in finance wants the design to be purple when the vice-president loves blue! The power struggle there is not yours to deal with. They can elect one person who is your contact, I urge you to be upfront about this in the beginning. Also, be VERY clear about what services and time you are gifting them. If there has ever been a time for open communication and being clear, it’s time to get crystal clear!
Long-term client who pays consistently
If you have a client who pays on time and gives you consistent work, I say do it. It is a kindness that says hey, I appreciate your business. Now, this doesn’t mean create an entire book or a logo for free but if it is something that can be done quickly and within reason for them personally, this is where to do it. Words cannot express how much I value the constant client, and they deserve special treatment. I promise you this is where the pro bono comes in very handy, and you won’t regret it as long as you and they are realistic about what you are doing for them. Cover your bases as always and communicate that this is a one-time favor.
Because the design is just that bad and you see it as a challenge, yes, I just said that out loud
First off, never tell your potential client this is why you took this low paying gig. And when I say low paying, there needs to be some type of barter or small fee here. I have often driven by a business that I love and want to walk in the door and just say, “I will help you for free, just don’t close your doors because I can’t live without your product or services.” However much in your head that is a compliment, I assure you it’s not. Conversation is the key here. If you frequent a local place, and they are a start up business, most likely they are just trying to make it like the rest of us. If you have an opportunity to discuss this matter face to face, I can assure you this conversation will go well if you start off along the lines of “I love what you are doing here, have you chosen a design company to work with yet?” This is the time you use to feel them out. Who have they spoken to and do they have any money at all for advertising? If you feel like helping this business will come back to you, meaning they are going to grow, and you want in, this might be a perfect pro bono situation.
Family & Friends
This one is tough. Mom wants a fantastic Christmas card in your spare time and cousin Sherri is turning 40 and wants to invite her besties to her party and only needs ten cards, can you help? The list is long, and you may want to strangle them because they are family but try hard to resist. At the end of the day if you want to help, do it. If not, tell them you have too much on your plate, and you can’t manage it at this time. Be honest and move forward.
At the end of the day, there are many other situations for the pro bono experience. I have learned, more than once, that you have to go into it knowing you may be burned. I don’t like saying that, but I want you to be aware. I remember a t-shirt design I was supposed to do for a volunteer type project. I spent a lot of time trying to make everyone happy ( so many cooks in the kitchen) and when the t-shirts were delivered there were changes to my design that I didn’t exactly know about. Surprised? Me too. It turns out, the person in contact with the printer requested those changes and the printer did it without my consultation. I guess they didn’t think it mattered to me. Shame on me for this one, lesson learned.
On the flip side, when I believe strongly in something I do give breaks in regards to design. Not all of my experiences have been bad. Non-profits imparticular hold a special place in my heart since it is where I came from. I do believe it is good to help others but I also believe we should protect what we create and don’t abuse it by giving it away. Pay it forward when you can because good karma is important my friends! Pro BoNo? Maybe Pro BoYes?