Pro bono work

Pro bono? Uh oh!

Why you should say no to some pro bono work and ask many questions before saying yes.

If you’re a graphic designer, you probably get asked to work for free every now and then. The asker is usually a non-profit with no budget, and you like their cause. You are a kind-hearted citizen trying to make the world better. You want to say yes.

I’ve learned the hard way that some pro bono work will leave you feeling great, and other projects will be a bummer. Before you agree to work for free, consider a few questions.


Is everyone getting paid except you?

If the other project members are getting compensation and you’re not, you might want to dig into that. Is there a legitimate reason, or is this a case of design work not being valued?


Will this work help them accomplish their goal?

Friends volunteering with a non-profit once asked me to design a t-shirt for a fundraiser. The idea was to sell the t-shirts to help raise money to buy a house for vulnerable women. My understanding was that the t-shirts were mainly to help create awareness of the cause, and that there were additional sources of funding to buy the house. I didn’t ask questions. I just did the work. Then I learned they were planning to buy the house with the t-shirt revenue.

Um, nobody’s gonna buy that many shirts. They were never printed.

It wasn’t a big deal. It was a relatively small project. But it was a waste of time. Before accepting a pro bono project, make sure you understand how the work will realistically help accomplish a goal.


Are all the decision-makers on board?

Awhile back, a member of a team working on a project showed me some designs. He knew they could be improved, and I heartily agreed. It was the 11th hour, and the designs needed to be finalized quickly. Approaching me was a last ditch effort to try to upgrade the quality. When he asked for help, I said yes and made new designs, which we both thought were more successful. He took them back to the team. The project leader decided to go with the originals.

I never found out why. But I should have asked more questions before doing any work. Who will be deciding which designs to use? Does that person or people know you’re seeking outside help? Do they want this work done? Do they have their own thoughts about what improvements should look like?

With pro bono work, I’ve realized I tend to ask fewer questions than I do with a paid project. I’m not sure why. I’m changing that. Not just to protect myself from doing wasted work, but as a service to the client to help them clarify their objectives. Maybe these questions could help you, too.