The Nuts & Bolts of Managing Pro Bono Work

It’s good to give back, but be prepared.

Giving something back to the community in which your business operates is a venerable tradition. Among creative businesses this commonly takes the form of occasionally providing pro bono, or free, services to worthy causes. Yet, as noble as the sentiment that lies behind this tradition is, there are always hurdles just like any project or job.

Treat It Like It’s Not Free

Client management is a complex and delicate task, and managing a pro bono client is no exception.

When starting a pro-bono program, it is critical to set boundaries by answering a few questions for yourself: Who do I want to offer pro-bono services to? What kind of services do I want to offer on a pro-bono basis? What do I hope to achieve by offering these pro-bono services?” says Matthew Manos, the entrepreneur behind verynice, a company that was built on the pro bono belief.

This is particularly important if you are handling a project for individuals who are not familiar with production processes, hours, and overall costs. In these cases, it is usually best to first describe three approaches you could take – bare bones, normal, and top quality. This helps avoid another common plaint: pro bono clients who are later disappointed in the results because of their unrealistic expectations.

Participation should be well defined and finite. If there is one universal issue about pro bono contributions, it is that they often turn into dragged-out, or never-ending projects. The more vocal and communicative, the easier the process.

Insist on Creative Latitude

One of the strongest attractions of doing a pro bono project is the possibility of handling a different challenge. Experimenting. You should never ignore any client’s needs and objectives, but it is perfectly appropriate to insist on creative latitude as a prerequisite.

This benefits both parties. From a client’s perspective, many of the most effective and memorable communications efforts each year turn out to be done pro bono – a direct pay-back of giving greater creative freedom. And if you do end up producing work of this quality, you’ll get the additional benefit of a knockout portfolio piece.

The best advice I can give to anyone who is interested in taking on a pro bono project,” continues Manos, “is to treat it exactly as you would a paid client. Also, by literally educating the beneficiary on what this service is worth, you will increase your chances of that client appreciating your work for what it is: a gift.

Take Charge

Just because no money is being exchanged does not mean you should throw your design process to the wayside. It’s still a good idea to get them to sign a contract so that they can adhere to your schedule. If they are worried about signing a contract, ensure them it is something you do with all your clients, just to make sure the project is carried out with a definite plan.

This means that discovery, wire-framing and design phases should all be given strict timelines. If you need materials from them, make sure you get it when you ask.

It would also be smart to track your hours for the project – just in case things start to get out of hand. You don’t want to be working on the same projects for months with no pay. Doing this consistently and updating the client on how many hours you’ve completed will help them realize your time does have value. This hopefully, will also motivate them to get any content, images, etc. to you as soon as possible.

Lawyers Schmawyers

Unlike in the legal profession—where pro bono work is formalized into law school curricula, integral to a firm’s operations, and deeply embedded into the field’s culture in general—the design profession is only just beginning to put pro bono requirements into place.

Establish the procedures for all project work. It’s also up to you to make sure the client adheres to them. Keep in mind that many not-for-profit clients can be quite leisurely in the way they work. Time may mean money to you, it may not be as important to them.

No matter how altruistic and generous you are, you’re bound to get asked sooner or later for a contribution that goes beyond the pro bono spect. The design field is littered with stories of pro bono projects gone wrong.

Pro bono projects remain the lesser-loved stepchildren of design practices. The reality, however, is that we are being compensated, even if not in monetary terms. Pro bono service, we will argue, is good for business.

Pro-bono work is one of the most inspiring things a service-provider can do because it is a direct way to impact an organization. Whenever an organization can have access to talent at no cost, they are able to re-invest the money they do have into their cause. This creates a ripple effect of change which can reach well beyond the time you put in,” concludes Manos, the mind behind How to Give Half of Your Work Away for Free, who also spearheaded Models of Impact, a strategic business-design toolkit to promote legacy and entrepreneurship in the social impact community by developing tools and resources that make it easy (and fun!) to design disruptive business models.

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