The Benefits of Pro Bono Work


I recently signed on a new client, working as her branding strategist and marketer. She’s working to establish herself as a comedic communications coach for the executive/corporate markets; bridging her stand up comedienne life with her therapeutic approach with improv. Needing more help than her budget would ever allow, I happily offered to donate my services for free. I know many people out there are grimacing at the fact of a pro–bono project, but I find it to be a completely valuable experience, given the right circumstances of course.

1) You are an established ______, but are interested in breaking into ________, a new market/profession.

Consider this reason ‘Personal project, times two’.

I’m a pretty established art director/designer. I can easily get a paying job working in that field, so I pay my bills with these abilities most often. However, like most creative people, I have an insatiable curiosity for learning other new and interesting things. When I work on a client’s brand, I almost always am considering how the brand will be considered offline, in the office, or in emails. I ask follow up questions, month after the brand work has been completed, in order to see how the work has helped or harmed them. While those facets of my job were once just my own guilty pleasure at fulfilling questions, I now understand it’s an interest in marketing and strategy that I should nurture further. I’ll donate my services for free, or at a severely discounted rate, if the outcome will benefit both parties mutually– for whatever reasons they may be. Working as a marketing and strategy consultant for the stand up comedienne client will allow me to flex my muscles here in ways usually unavailable to run of the mill designers, and I am giving this one all of my gusto. So what she can’t pay? It doesn’t mean no rewards will be coming. If you’re trying to break into a new ANYTHING, give it all you’ve got. You’ll make an impression for sure.

2) A cause you believe in can be worth more than money!

There are some things that money just cannot buy, and passion is absolutely one of them. Volunteering some of your services towards something you love; your favorite yoga studio that is in DIRE need of some unhippie-ing presence, a band you listen to that instantly pushes you to create, is going to be better than something you couldn’t care about even though they DO pay you to do it. I also like to think it speaks volumes about your character– one for the fact that you care passionately about a cause to begin with, and two that you’d dedicate some time helping that cause out in a way that is individual to you. No matter what you’re talking about, every little bit can help out –– unless it’s white supremacy, or something. Then you better just back away.

3) Remember that old (and sometimes sleazy) adage: One hand washes another!

I wish bartering would make a bigger come back. There’s something so nostalgically wholesome in the idea of trading for goods and services. Makes the whole ‘global village’ thing seem more like Mayberry than the Matrix. Whenever someone talks about bartering something they’ll do for me, if I design x, I am usually pretty interested. May moons ago, when tattoos and plugs were more punk rock than currency, I designed a tattoo/head shop’s business cards and created a large scale collage for their wall, in exchange for some piercing work. I cannot tell you how it makes me smile, and how it made me beam of how awesome that was way back when. Even if the trade is for something in the future, I like to think that we never know what the seeds we plant today will grow into. I’ve had people drop into my email box after 5 years of seeing my work at some so–and–so, and now we have email-esque penpalship’s going on. Maybe it’s the idealist in me, but I enjoy the idea of creating a nurtured web of trusted people to trade favors with! It’s probably why I relish in the freelancer’s universe so well.

There are totally reasons why you should NOT to work for free. The above treasure trove of happy, optimistic wonder are all disclaimed by the fact that I make sure I pay my bills first before I donate my time away for free! If you are just starting out and without a safety net of a day job, do not give your services away!

The other reason, one made explicitly by the AIGA, is Speculative (Spec) work. This kind of stuff pops up in the form of “contests”, where by the winner of the chosen design will get paid. This, the AIGA says (and I whole heartedly agree), demeans the profession of design (and probably every other profession it’s involved in). You hire someone to do the job, that person is paid and all is well. You ask people to pitch their ideas and you select which one gets paid? That sounds like 17th century craziness from inbred royalty if you ask me. Volunteering or donating, you are still creating a reputation as a profession in your field. Throwing work out to be decided upon without the foundation of respect is an entirely different situation!

What do you think? Would you ever work for free ? What are your reasons why or why not?

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