The Case for Pro Bono Work

As a web development company, we have received numerous requests for pro bono work. And the prospective clients have fallen into a wide variety of categories. Some have been up and coming musicians or struggling artists. Others have been start up companies who didn’t want to invest in something that wasn’t a sure thing. And only once have we ever received a request from a true not-for-profit company.

With so many requests, we realized that (1) we couldn’t realistically satisfy them all and (2) it was not worthwhile to give pro bono work to anyone that requested it. So, to help differentiate between a good pro bono client and a someone that just wanted free labor, we came up with a set of standards.

The Ideal Pro Bono Client

The following guidelines are what we use to find our pro bono clients. If you are considering taking on some pro bono clients of our own or are hoping to be a pro bono client yourself, this list will serve you well.

  1. Entity Is a Company or Organization. Individuals are not pro bono clients. So if a struggling musician comes to you with a proposal, it is probably not a good idea. On the other hand, if you are just looking for a portfolio fluffer and have full license to supply your own creative design, it might be a good volunteer project. Be sure that you sign a contract which states that you get full attribution for your work.
  2. Entity Is a Not-For-Profit or Community Organization. More often than not, new businesses request free work because they understandably don’t want to invest in something that isn’t a sure thing. Or in this economic climate, they might not be able to afford web development work. However, this is a bad idea for several reasons. Foremost, businesses exist to make profit, so it is unreasonable for such an entity to expect free labor. Think about it this way, businesses pay their other employees to come in to work. Shouldn’t they pay you?
  3. Entity Is Stable and Has Been in Existence for a While. If you do pro bono work, you want it to last. The entity that you do it for should be in existence long enough for you to show off your work and get some sort of promotion in return for creating it. If the entity collapses or goes out of business soon after you’ve invested your work, then your labor was given away in vain.

Of course, there are good exceptions to these rules. However, these guidelines can be used as a starting point.

Other Types of Free Labor Exchanges

There are also other times when you might want to offer unpaid work. Many freelance workers, for example, offer free work in return for experience, promotion, or additions to their portfolios. Or sometimes, professionals give their labor with strings attached, such as in the case of work done in exchange for future profits, promotion, services, or future payment. When engaging in these or similar exchanges, it is important to carefully consider each such client and to protect yourself and your work. We suggest creating contracts which clearly outline the scope of the work and the terms of compensation.

 

Pro bono work is a great way to give back to the community or to assist not-for-profit organizations that selflessly help others. However, when choosing your pro bono client, remember that you should always get something back for your work. It does not need to be monetary compensation, but at minimum, you should get some recognition for your work.

For more information on Working Pro Bono, see the Business of Design Online’s Working Pro-Bono article series, that covers everything from motives to marketing, to contracts.

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