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Love over Money

Most of us, at some point in our careers, work for free or for cheap, on purpose, for reasons other than money. Maybe it’s for a cause we support, or maybe it’s because we see an opportunity to do some great work, or maybe it’s for a friend. Pro bono publico means “for the public good.” When do you work pro bono, and is it for the public good, or is it really for your own good?

Also, how do you manage the project? Is it just like any other project, only without the exchange of money, or do you have certain rules?

Do you have carte blanche for the design? Would you say, “I’ll do one concept, no charge, if it doesn’t suit you we walk away”? Or would you severely limit the rounds of changes your client makes? And do your pro bono clients sign a contract?

If the pro bono client is a registered charity, you probably get a tax deduction, but what if they’re not? We used to have a policy of always billing the full value of the work and then discounting it to zero or to a reduced rate for clients we wanted to help out but who couldn’t afford our full rates. At least then they had an idea of how much they were asking when they came back to us for more.

We had some pro bono clients that were wonderful to work with and deeply appreciative (I’m always amazed at how far a heartfelt “thank you” will go, and by how many people forget this.) Then we had others who were the worst possible clients, constantly revising (charitable organizations often have committees), and constantly asking for more. When faced with the latter, do you cut them off and leave them in the lurch, or just grind through it and never work for them again?

What about working for friends? In general this is something I dread: they almost never have any idea of how much work is involved or the value of that work. The potential for strife is huge as they understand neither what you do, nor the rules for usage (e.g. you do a little ad for your friend’s small business, next thing you know they’re having it blown up for some hideous pixellated version of signage for their shop—then what?).

So when do you do it, how, and what’s in it for you?

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PUBLISHED ON Nov.23.2003 BY marian bantjes
Virginia’s comment is:

Oh man, this is a huge issue for me. When I was just starting out in design - I'd kind of accidentally ended up in the area while editing a magazine and doing art at uni - I became involved in a charitable organisation. They wanted a website, and were happy for me to do some 'on the job' learning, which was great for me.

I've now been working for them for over 4 years, updating their site, looking after various bits and pieces, and occasionally doing identity work etc. The only problem is that I'm now a professional designer, with a degree and everything, running my own small business, and I'm finding it harder and harder to find the time. So I think I need to cut the cord.

I suspect there's no great way of doing it... but if anyone has any ideas...?

On Nov.23.2003 at 11:30 PM
Al-Insan Lashley’s comment is:

My suggestion is to suggest your replacement. I had an organization who became... a bit too dependent. I called a couple of designer friends, searching for someone interested in helping a non-profit inexpensively, or for free. I found someone and sent their name to the client. They started working together, and a happy ending was had by all.

You might also find a student (perhaps someone from your alma mater?) who is interested in the same learning opportunities you got from the organization. Then, your organization will get the same low-cost design.

Hope that helps?...

On Nov.24.2003 at 12:10 AM
Matthew’s comment is:

I'm a big fan of pro bono work and feel that it benefits all parties involved.

The client gets professional level work that they otherwise wouldn't get. Thus empowering their message and allowing them to compete in our increasing image/design based culture.

The designer gets a warm fuzzy feeling inside and usually a bit of credit which can lead - if the designer is interested - in more work for the 'havenots' of this world. Which can only be rewarding in the end.

Personally I think everyone wins.

Rules are the tough part. When the work is for free it - for obvious reasons - always takes a backseat to paid work. I think the harder part is the subjective approval process. Should the client just take what they get? Or do they have the right to insist on endless revisions? Those are the areas that need to be clearly communicated at the start of the project.

On Nov.24.2003 at 10:24 AM
Armin’s comment is:

I haven't done enough pro-bono to have any good advice or stories. I have done work for friends who I think would benefit from good design, and I usually do it for very little money or none at all. For example, right now Bryony and I are helping her brother with the identity of his new business. He is an urban planner and is going into business with three other colleagues, he came to us looking for advice on which typeface would be cool for their logo, we decided to offer him the full-blown program (logo, stationery, web site) for nothing. And we didn't do it only because it was her brother but because we believed that their new venture would benefit greatly from a well-executed program rather than a crap-shoot of choosing a font from PowerPoint.

My point is, that if I believe strongly enough in a business or in a person and they don't have the resources to pay me I am more than willing to provide my services at no cost. I don't look for glorification or anything, it just feels good to be able to help somebody with something that comes easily for me (in this case us).

On the other hand, I recently got a call from one of my long-lasting, highschool friends, (who hasn't called me once since I moved to Chicago btw) asking me to do a logo for a product he is selling. Right from the get-go I told him I didn't have time to do it right now, but that I wanted to hear him out to give him a recommendation. Long story short, he had downloaded a few logos from the web and frankensteined himself a logo that he wanted polished. He asked how much a designer would charge for doing a logo, and I said that it would be something in the viccinity of 5k� loooong pause, then he asked if there was any chance that he could get it done for — I'm not kidding here — $20. He also asked why was it so expensive if he already had the idea (which in this case included monkeys hanging off a palm tree) and just needed the execution. And that's when you know which friends not to work for.

On Nov.24.2003 at 10:31 AM
jami anderson’s comment is:

This is an issue I grapple with almost constantly. Doing work cheap or free for such organizations, friends, etc. can hurt all designers in the long run. Not only does it perpetuate the perception that what we do can be done cheaply or for free quite easily, but it also puts the idea in the mind of clients that they can always get a student or someone just starting out to do work for them cut-rate. That means you have more people balking at the rates we should rightfully be charging but can't get because it's too easy for them to find people who will do it for free.

I'm not saying we shouldn't help out pro-bono organizations or friends no matter what - there are great advantages to both as has been outlined in previous discussion. But please let these people know how much you would have charged, how many hours it took you to do the work and be firm on numbers of revisions and how far you bend backwrads for them. Devaluing your time and effort devalues all of our time and effort.

On Nov.24.2003 at 10:36 AM
Brian Warren’s comment is:

When doing pro bono work, one thing to always keep in mind, and communicate to your client is how much you are worth. You dont need to say "Oh by the way, I'm awesome." But something more along the lines of - "Hey I'm happy to be doing this project for you, because I [insert statement about appreciating their friendship/cause/etc]. I just want you to know that this project typically would cost a company $xx." Maybe you would prefer to put this in their brief outlining the cost and hours for the project with a note that the fee is waived.

If they ask about it, you could say that's something you typically do, just so that your no-charge clients know what goes into a project. This could help them to not take advantage of you.

The more i think about it, the more I realize that pro-bono clients should be handled identically to your pay-clients. Especially when it comes to communication and the business end of things.

On Nov.24.2003 at 10:37 AM
ps’s comment is:

my approach is to be available for one pro-bono client a year. how much of my services i'll commit depends on my schedule really, but once i'll committ they'll get my full efforts just as any other paying client gets.

doing pro-bono work does a few things for me.

its rewarding to support a cause in a substantial way. i might not have the resources to write them a big check. but i can provide the equivalent in design help.

it promotes my business in the community

if i do it for one, i can tell all others that my pro-bono allocation for the year has been filled already. which believe it or not is a great answer to have when you get calls for donations for all these organizations. it eliminates the "guilt"

what has happended a few times now is that an organization is really appreciative at the beginning. after a while they'll take it for granted. up to a point where they don't realize the pro-bono part anymore. thats usually my signal to move on and provide the services to someone else.

business consultants will most likely tell you not to do pro bono work, rather give them a donation. the donation is tax deductable. i tend to think its a good thing to forget about the bottomline once in a while and just do something because it feels right.

On Nov.24.2003 at 10:38 AM
ps’s comment is:

When doing pro bono work, one thing to always keep in mind, and communicate to your client is how much you are worth

good point. even if you do a freebie for a good client that sends yo a lot of work. people do not seem to understand the value until you attach a number to it. i usually write invoices listing my services and the amount it would cost. then i mark the invoice with "provided at no cost" or something of that nature. for non profits, if they list sponsors, you should be listed as a sponsor as well. chances are you put in more than the biggest sponsor did in the first place..

On Nov.24.2003 at 10:46 AM
marian’s comment is:

The more i think about it, the more I realize that pro-bono clients should be handled identically to your pay-clients.

I've been starting to think this, myself. The only problem is that with a paying client, when revisions go beyond x-rounds, you have the recourse of billing them extra for the work. So I'm not sure how to resolve that with pro bono clients.

if they list sponsors, you should be listed as a sponsor as well.

That is so true, and something that you should negotiate at the outset, based on the value of your contribution. I can remember being at a gala event for an organization we did all the promotional materials for, and standing there, looking at the sign listing all the sponsors and realizing we weren't on it--then when they gave a big speech thanking everyone who donated we weren't mentioned! It was partly our own fault for not having negotiated that--I mean, we made the sign, we should've had the brains to think "we should be on here."

Having one pro bono client per year is a good idea, and could help with some of the problems--e.g. when clients start to take your free service for granted. If you had a 1 year cut-off, you could say "It's been great, but I like to spread the love around so this coming year I'll be working for someone else."

Which brings me to something else I wanted to ask. Does anyone seek out a particular pro bono client, or do you always wait for them to come to you? Have you ever received something in the mail and thought they looked like a great cause but their material is awful, so you hunt them down and offer your services?

On Nov.24.2003 at 11:12 AM
damien’s comment is:

My point is, that if I believe strongly enough in a business or in a person and they don't have the resources to pay me I am more than willing to provide my services at no cost. I don't look for glorification or anything, it just feels good to be able to help somebody with something that comes easily for me (in this case us).

A lot of the time I find that I produce far better work and enjoy it more when I work on the premise of helping the client and the outcome rather than how much they are paying me. If I could - I would do all my work for free, and then choose specifically what I did.

I never mention to the client how much 'it would/should' cost. I don't believe that my clients are incapable of seeing the value otherwise. They get the same level of service and process that a full-fee paying client would.

On Nov.24.2003 at 11:36 AM
ps’s comment is:

My point is, that if I believe strongly enough in a business or in a person and they don't have the resources to pay me I am more than willing to provide my services at no cost.

the tricky part with doing that is that you'll give a very mixed message about your pricing and in the long run it might bite you in your butt. i'll do a logo for you for $500 but i'll charge the other guy $5,000 for the same work, then someone else pays $20,000 and someone else $1,250. you might just devalue your services that way. its like buying an expensive product. either you can afford it, or you can't. there is no "well, you don't have that much money so i'll give you the car for half-price.."

On Nov.24.2003 at 12:00 PM
Armin’s comment is:

ps isn't that the whole point of pro-bono? Not charging?

On Nov.24.2003 at 12:32 PM
ps’s comment is:

well, thats the tricky part. what do i accept as a pro-bono candidate and what not... i guess i separate between "charity or good cause" pro-bono and "start-up" pro bono. and start-up pro bono i don't believe in. Most calls for a new identity identify themselves as start-ups and tell me that their funds are limited. i thinks its their way of trying to take advantage of us. they will not ask for special treatment from their computer dealer, from their accountants (or their plumber for that matter) so rather than doing pro-bono for them i might offer to create something smaller with less time involvement for a start-up. but i'll stick to my fees which in my case are time-based.

On Nov.24.2003 at 12:45 PM
Armin’s comment is:

OK, I see what you are saying now. And I do agree with you, start-ups tend to truly not have a lot of money and figure that where they can really save is with design fees.

In this particular case, with my brother-in-law, there was nothing but good will, if it had been somebody else it would have been a different story.

On Nov.24.2003 at 01:32 PM
Paul’s comment is:

It's interesting to note that the folks best known for doing pro bono work are lawyers. The common perception is that they provide a premium service yet have a commitment to the public interest. It would be nice if this could be said about graphic designers as well...and to a degree it is, I think.

"Giving it away" and "contributing" are two different things, right?

On Nov.24.2003 at 03:37 PM
Cheshire’s comment is:

I've always done a bunch of pro-bono work, primarily because I loved what the client was doing (usually small theater) and I couldn't stand the thought of their having a crappy poster for it. I've become a lot pickier over the years about who I take on as pro-bono, though. In recent years, my main pro-bono client is Impact Theatre, because the artistic director pretty much lets me do whatever I want and trusts that I have the best interests of the company at heart. In fact, I'm so valued as the designer there that I'm part of the core membership of the company, participating equally in decisions that affect all aspects of the company. So far as I know, this is unheard-of in the world of theater. Even when I was the full-time staff designer of a much larger nonprofit theater, I didn't have this much involvement in how the company was run.

On Nov.24.2003 at 04:42 PM
mrTIM’s comment is:

I've had the opportunity / curse to do a lot of "free" work. I always told myself getting into these situations that, "It'll be a great experience, and a really cool end product that will look great in the portfolio. etc, etc, etc."

Well, it never is. I've found the less clients have to pay you the more they try to take advantage. It's a strange and mixed up world when I'm getting calls at 2:30 in the morning because a website I built, for free, three years ago is down because their hosts server crashed.

Then there was the logo I did for a friend's startup business. Suddenly she got investors who wanted their say, and by the time I was done the logo had been through 16 variations and just as many meetings to discuss them.

Every once in a while I'll do something in trade for someone, and that usually works out better. I think that somewhere in the client's sub-conscience they say "If I'm not paying for it then it must not be worth much..."

The one thing I've learned is that if your doing it for free only do the stuff you'll really enjoy working on.

On Nov.24.2003 at 04:53 PM
Marian’s comment is:

The reason I titled this post "Love over Money" is because I'm not really talking about those times we allow ourselves to be taken advantage of -- I'm talking about the times we volunteer our services out of some sort of "love," for the organization, the project, or the person.

So while i agree with some of what you're saying mrTIM, that is another discussion (especially work for trade).

Cheshire's experience sounds ideal: working for something he supports, and ultimately being able to support it in more ways than one. Appreciation and trust are the key ingredients to pro bono work. OKAY ... they're the key ingredients to all work, but without either of those or the money, it's hard to be enthusiastic about giving your time.

On Nov.24.2003 at 05:32 PM
Cheshire’s comment is:

I should note: with pro-bono projects, I usually would rather work for free than for a little bit of money. Once any money, usually a paltry sum, is involved, the client feels free to abuse the relationship. Here's a graph I came up with a long time ago that expresses generally how well I get treated (respect) considering how much I get paid:

That's why I almost always reserve my pro-bono jobs for clients I love. And I love clients who don't take advantage of my generosity.

Note: this is partially a guess. I have not yet had the privilege of being paid an infinite amount of money, but I imagine the respect quotient would be extremely high. It's an odd paradox: the more you charge people, the more they seem to let you do whatever you want, because you must be a genius if you're charging that much...

On Nov.24.2003 at 06:30 PM
mrTIM’s comment is:

Yeah, Cheshire's got it made.

I was just trying to point out the nasty downside to following your love into the marketplace.

I was responding more to "Then we had others who were the worst possible clients, constantly revising (charitable organizations often have committees), and constantly asking for more."

My response (which, as I re-read in my NyQuil induced coma, was not very well stated) is that (a) these types of clients are all to common, and (b) even the best clients will expect something of you, and expect your work to be worth something. Therefore by doing pro bono you may send the wrong message.

Like I said, I'll only do work that I'd especially like doing. That way if the clients turn out to be a terror then at least I had fun in front of my computer.

I know it's a pessimistic way to choose what pro bono work to do, but at least I'll never be disappointed. Plus more often than not I end up doing something really cool while working with great clients.

On Nov.24.2003 at 06:40 PM
mrTIM’s comment is:

ps. I love the graph.

On Nov.24.2003 at 06:42 PM
freelix’s comment is:

isn't the whole point of pro-bono Not charging?

i had a new client ask me to do a "pro bono" logo (free) for an adoption agncy a few years back. -caveated fwith bigger, paying work.

needless to say they noodled it until i eventually killed it. later, when it was accepted in the ADC show they had a change of heart and wanted it (or just credit for it).

i justify doing cheap /free work by telling myself it does the world (and me) some g00d but recentnly i've come to learn that its a failrly

pathetic charade. its all business.

On Nov.24.2003 at 08:58 PM
Bradley’s comment is:

This is always a tough one. From where I sit in la-la land, numerous agencies take on pro bono work as a vehicle to win easy awards--its getting harder, fortunately, but there's always a way to guarantee yourself something. This is fine, but to do work for a charity specifically because you think you can win an award, that's...a tad shady in my book. Maybe I'm off-base, I don't know, but its not something I feel comfortable with. If you believe that strongly in the charity and awards come almost accidentally, that's fine. Tough call either way because you may not ever know what your motivations are.

On Nov.25.2003 at 12:56 PM
Marian’s comment is:

Thanks Bradley, that was one of the things I was kindof wondering.

It seems that if you were volunteering for the love of the organization you'd treat them pretty much the same as a regular client (though I still don't know what to do if they get out of control).

If you were volunteering because you see the potential to do some good, award-winning work, well you'd have to have some pretty serious control on the project (e.g. the "carte blanche" option I mentioned). You seem to be uncertain of the ethicality of this latter option, but I see it as a trade-off: the organization and the design firm are both using each other for some mutual benefit. The former option is a much more selfless commitment on the part of the designer.

On Nov.25.2003 at 01:44 PM
Brian Warren’s comment is:

It seems that if you were volunteering for the love of the organization you'd treat them pretty much the same as a regular client (though I still don't know what to do if they get out of control).

I suppose love hurts sometimes. If they do get out of control, you need to voice your rights as a human and, I suppose, as a designer to not be taken advantage of. And even if you love the organization you are helping out, just like a regular job, you gotta lay ground rules first - maybe specifically a temination date detailing that your time is limited, and when you have to cut the line.

On Nov.25.2003 at 02:19 PM
Mark’s comment is:

Great thoughts here guys. I know I'm a day or so late in the discussion but its been a busy week. I have done lots of pro bono for both friends and charities and learned a few great lessons the hard way.

1. Definitely do work you love for a client you want to work for.

2. Spend the time to do a good job

3. Give them a quote so they appreciate the value of your work, then add a line that discounts the amount

4. pro bono can just be for the "greater good" but can offer something in return as well. If they offer a service that could be of use to you then offer a barter, or trade for time. If your logo can be on the piece as a sponsor do it. Place a free ad - whatever.

5. Ask for referrals (for paid clients not other pro bonos) they may have strong relationships with other sponsors etc.

6. Put it in writing and be specific, XX number of hours or XX months for contract to expire. Its much easier to extend the commitment then to cut it short.

7. Let them know what you want out of it (if anything) and be honest. If you want a exposure piece, or a chance to try something new, or a portfolio piece etc. Let them know where they stand on the client food chain - if your approach is "regular paying clients first, pro bono on spare time" or if its equal footing - its important to build a strong relationship from the start.

8. Set the expectations. Insist on final copy and let them know they only get 2 sets of design revisions. Spent the time doing the task and not endless copy changes.

9. Don't take on more work than you can handle. We all still have to pay the bills to stage the process over and appropriate timeline and do one project at a time.

10. Don't expect anything in return. They may promise to pay in the future, or bring you new clients - and that's great if they do. But if you expect it to happen you will only be disappointed.

11.Have fun. If the contact is a PITA then move on to another charity that will appreciate what you do more.

We worked with a specific charity for years and recently decided it was time to mix things up a little as we had completed revamping their site, ads, invites etc. So I posted an ad in a local job site looking for volunteers to maintain the site for that client and did some quick interviews to recommend a replacement. Several qualified students replied and one was the happy recipient of the position. It worked out to be a real win-win.

To find our next charity we asked all our staff to submit their choices and wrote a simple RFP asking the charities what they would want from a design firm. We sent the RFP to the selected charities and if there were interested in the free work they responded. It was a great way to find the charities that were egar and appreciative of our offerings and allowed us to focus our efforts on an organization that would allow us to have a positive impact in their marketing and not simply looking for updates or production type work. This also gave designers an opportunity to learn something new like project management, writing and RPF etc.

On Nov.26.2003 at 08:42 PM
Julie ’s comment is:

As a student I think that pro-bono work is a great idea... it's an excellent way to build up a portfolio as well as get your name out in the design world. I would defiantly have my limits on what I did, but I would consider taking on some work.

On Nov.27.2003 at 05:12 PM
Day’s comment is:

I haven't read all the commments, so there will be some overlap, but I thought I'd link to this article I wrote while ago about working for non-profits:


Here are the bullet points:

1. Check your intentions. Why are you working for a non-profit? You like the cause, you want to build your portfolio, etc. Be honest, now.

2. Don't pick up non-profit clients "on the side". The work will reflect your lack of focus.

3. Scope to your strength. Non-profits always need lots done. Do what you're best at and no more.

4. Figure out the group dynamics. NP's make decisions diffrently than businesses. Often there's lots of talk about consensus, but really there is a strong leader. Walk the balance between what you say ("consensus is good") and what you do (get the leader to make firm decisions).

5. Client education. NP clients often have less experience with design projects, so plan for that.

6. Manage expectations. Introduce the golden triangle of price, quality and speed (i.e. get them to order them by priority).

7. Work up to big decisions. NP's make big decisions slowly and with lots of education, so warm them up with small easy decisions right away.

8. Avoid project creep. Duh.

9. Get the client out of their office. Doesn't matter what kind of client, really.

10. Book longer meetings. NP's generally need more time. If you skimp, it will bite you in the ass later.

11. Mentor the client-side project manager. Again, do this for everybody anyway.

12. Get signoffs. If its free or cheap, some clients think they get lots of revisions. They're so, so wrong about that.

The other thing I want to echo is the idea of working for zero instead of very little. Then, especially if you're doing it for your portfolio, let the client know that the reason you are doing it for free is for creative reasons. If they want to micormanage, you can reccommend a recent grad who will do the work for cheap and who will take detailed direction.

On Nov.28.2003 at 11:42 AM
jim’s comment is:

I'm still working on my bachelors and the idea of (significant or not) pro bono work is attractive to me. Still building that portfolio that will prove my ability in the "real world." I do wonder about the many out there who take advantage of young/inexperienced designers.

On Nov.30.2003 at 08:35 PM
Gunnar Swanson’s comment is:

Too much graphic design gets done strictly to bolster the ego of the graphic designer. Way too much “pro bono” work does. Remember that “pro bono” means “for good” not “I like that singer with the weird sunglasses and it would be cool to go to Africa and seem to care about the world.” Just as in all professional graphic design, the major concerns should be strategic not stylistic. If you tell someone you are doing something for a reason it is incumbent upon you to actually do it for that reason. Saying “I want to help save the world/solve your problems/make people understand” and then not doing your best to do so is a lie. (If you claim you're creating art you should consider what sort of art has a lie as its basis.) If you want a cool portfolio piece don’t screw up the progress of a good cause by inflicting it on them. Using an organization’s resources for your own advancement without delivering what they need is cynical at best and is arguable criminal fraud. Treat pro bono work as real work or have the decency to not do it.

On Dec.04.2003 at 01:27 PM
ps’s comment is:

If you want a cool portfolio piece don’t screw up the progress of a good cause by inflicting it on them. Using an organization’s resources for your own advancement without delivering what they need is cynical at best and is arguable criminal fraud.

ever considered that you might accomplish both helping the cause and your portfolio?

On Dec.04.2003 at 01:34 PM
Gunnar Swanson’s comment is:

ever considered that you might accomplish both helping the cause and your portfolio?

Of course. At some point your whole portfolio is likely to be work done for good reason (as opposed to work done to look cool.) A pro bono project can be a very good place to start that. Do it for the right reasons and it probably will be worthy of being in your portfolio.

I do way more pro bono work than any reasonable person would. It is a significant part of my portfolio. I would never do work for any client thinking “portfolio,” however. In the end it doesn't make for an effective portfolio to do portfolio pieces. It is much more effective to do your job well and use the evidence of that to show that you are likely to continue doing your job well.

On Dec.04.2003 at 02:52 PM