Pro bono public, aka "pro bono", is a common practice in the creative industry, particularly among designers who long to use their skills and talents on projects they find personally fulfilling. (For those who are unfamiliar with the term, it's work of any sort that's done for the public good without compensation.)
But the design field is littered with stories of pro bono projects gone wrong. What starts as a labor of love for a grateful client becomes a time-sucking disaster for a two-headed monster.
So how can creative professionals lend their services to meaningful work without being taken advantage of? How can designers – especially freelancers who are challenged to maximize their billable hours – donate their time wisely? And how can they gain some business benefit from the transaction? We spoke to some veteran designers who offered good pointers for those interested in pursuing pro bono work: Support a cause you believe in
Many designers seek to use their innate creativity for purposes beyond "selling more widgets" or increasing traffic to a website. When you work to support a cause that holds special meaning to you, it can rekindle your creative spark. That's certainly the case for Justin Ahrens, creative director of Rule29, a strategic design firm based in Geneva, Ill. Ahrens and his team spend one-fifth of their working hours each year volunteering. One organization they're very dedicated to helping is Life In Abundance International, a group devoted to helping some of the poorest communities in East Africa.
"We look for projects we're passionate about, because if we're passionate, then our best work shows," says Justin. "It's so inspiring when you show work in your portfolio that you're passionate about, because you know more about it and you speak about it with more enthusiasm. Clients and prospects get inspired, too."
Ultimately, pro bono work can and should benefit your own bottom line, as well as that of your client. "For a long time, I didn't talk about [our pro bono] work; we just did it. Now, we talk about it with our clients and prospects. Not in the sense of, ‘Look at how great we are for giving back,' but in the sense of, ‘Look what we can do for you.'" Connect with new prospects
Justin says that his firm's pro bono activity has opened the doors to paying projects from other nonprofits. California-based freelance designer Prax Cruz has experienced the same phenomenon.
In one instance, a web project he volunteered to work on for Ecofficiency.org, a nonprofit organization in his hometown, led to new connections and work from related organizations. Specifically, board members from other local social service agencies that engaged with Ecoefficiency – including the Orange County Food Access Coalition – saw Prax's work and were so impressed by what they saw that they hired him. He ended up developing a logo for the Coalition's Real Meals program and a website for its Harvest Club, which gathers extra produce from backyard orchards and vegetable gardens for food pantry distribution.
While the latter were paid projects, Prax worked for a discounted fee – and like other designers experienced with pro bono work, he communicated the true value of his work by submitting an estimate that noted both the full and reduced fees. "I find that even though I'm giving [my clients] a break on the price, they're very stoked to get good design work," he says. "They're not just settling for something; they're getting work that they actually like for a great price. They don't nickel-and-dime."
Jeff Fisher, a veteran freelance designer who's donated plenty of his creative time over his 35-year career, agrees that pro bono projects are great avenues for expanding your network. "Boards of directors are filled with highly successful people who are well-connected," he says. "It's a great way to show what you can do without the hard sell."
In fact, Jeff built his successful solo business, Jeff Fisher LogoMotives, on a foundation of pro bono work for the Portland Children's Museum. It was his way of breaking into the design scene when he moved to Portland without a job. Jeff now donates between 10 and 20 percent of his time annually, and has one pro bono client, a nonprofit theater group, that he's served for more than 20 years. Expand your skills and build your portfolio
Particularly during slower periods, freelancers can use pro bono projects to practice new design disciplines and add to their body of work. Megan Kirby, a Seattle-based freelance print designer, recently created a website for a pro bono client as a way to add a digital project to her portfolio. She'd heard good things about a veterinary clinic in her neighborhood and then approached them about creating a simple website with some Flash animation. "I wanted to see how my work could impact my community," she says. "It was nice to add that to my portfolio, and it's led to other website projects." A few final words
Engaging in pro bono work can become addictive, so it's important to be cognizant of your time and how your "good deeds" are affecting your regular workload. As such, following is a short list of hard-learned tips from the designers we spoke with for maximizing your efforts:
- Set parameters. Make a list of causes or efforts that you believe in enough to support with your time, whether that's animal welfare or cancer research, performing arts or community services. Having guidelines for the kind of work you'll commit to minimizes any feeling of guilt you might experience when you have to turn down organizations that fall outside your scope.
- Communicate the value of your work. Explain to your pro bono clients how you typically price your work, and give them a project estimate or proposal that displays the full fee, with $0 listed as the billable cost. This helps add to the credibility of the services you are providing.
- Treat every pro bono project like a paying gig. Use your standard letter of agreement or contract to cover your work. Also be sure to include a clause that requires a credit line on the finished piece or website and gives you the right to promote the work yourself.
- Establish a single point of contact. Nonprofit organizations are committee-driven, and this can significantly add to the amount of time you spend on a pro bono job. It's critical that you identify a single person who can consolidate feedback and wrangle conflicting opinions.
- Expect some creative freedom. But not always as much as you'd like; you're still responsible for helping the client reach a particular business goal.
- Recognize that pro bono relationships may evolve. Over time, organizations may come up with funding for the work you do, through grants or targeted donations. Jeff's long-term pro bono client – a community theater group for which he has designed more than one hundred logos for its productions over two decades – pays him what it can, when it can.
- Seek out pro bono projects that are right for you. "Any designer going into a pro bono situation has to trust their instincts, especially since you're giving the work away. Is this going to work? Is it a fit? You want to avoid a situation where you come away from a project feeling bad and taken advantage of," advises Jeff.