Is Pro Bono Good Business?

April 4, 2016 | Bobby Buchanan

Before answering this question, here are some thoughts to help you evaluate opportunities and make good business decisions.

Pro bono comes from the Latin, “pro bono public” or “work done without compensation for the public good.” This term comes up often in our industry. It’s a great way to give back to your community and leverage your talents to make a positive impact for organizations that might otherwise not have the resources. It can also cost you time and resources that may effect your livelihood and making enough money to stay in business.

When given the opportunity, and if my schedule allowed, I have provided pro bono work to many organizations and individuals over the last 20 years. I never used a strategic approach to evaluate the opportunity until it was too late to “skip.” The pro bono requests came in the form of referrals or random inquiries.

Finally after all these years, I came to realize an important fact… Pro bono projects need to align with MY values and community interests AND provide exposure opportunities that would help me grow or advance my business. This became the foundation for Orange Tree Project, the 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that I founded in 2015.


Suggestions for maximizing your creative efforts:

Get the name of your business out into the community. You never know who is looking.

Pro bono projects are often associated to a nonprofit, and all nonprofits have a board of directors who are business or community leaders. They can be a great business development opportunity.

Creative License
Take the opportunity to explore and experiment with concepts and design executions without compromising the brand integrity of the nonprofit.

Select a nonprofit that is looking to raise the brand bar and looking for the right creative partner. The results from this will add diversity and range to your portfolio.

Public Good
Take this opportunity to educate a group of individuals about the benefits that come when working with a design professional. It’s a great way to reinforce the value of design.

Office Morale
This can be a great opportunity to involve the entire team. Split up the responsibilities from design projects, social media posts, meetings, or volunteering for pro bono clients so everyone has a chance to get involved. A great “feel good” boost to the energy of the office.

Pro bono blues!

Great intentions don’t always lead to rewards… here are some issues to be aware of:

Time Commitment
Give your pro bono time carefully or “scope creep” can easily take over, especially when working with a nonprofit who doesn’t have much experience working with a design agency. Find the right balance between paying clients and pro bono projects.

Ask the right questions up front to ensure that you and the nonprofit have set clear ground rules for working together. The pro bono relationship can quickly go out the window if you let it. Nonprofit clients can quickly forget the pro bono etiquette and become one of those “frustrating” clients. Your time is valuable and the last thing you want is to do the work out of obligation.

What’s Your Worth
It’s important to share the value of your professional work. Especially when there are so many nonprofit organizations out there looking for the right creative partner. Not explaining the value of your work can come back to haunt you when they need something in the future, or worse, refer you to others because you’re a nice person and don’t charge much, if at all. Even clients in pro bono arrangements should know exactly what the work was worth so they can truly appreciate it’s value. You’re establishing a mutually beneficial relationship.

Pro bono clients always start with the great enthusiasm about shining your business name in lights… Don’t be afraid to be specific when asking for exposure that will benefit your business in exchange for pro bono work. And put it in writing.

All these conversations are easier to have with causes that you believe in and want to help. It’s important to support causes that have special meaning.

Win Win

How to make it work for everyone:

Establish criteria for working together
As the professional providing services for free, it’s important to establish ground rules at the start of the project. Deliverables, timeline, out-of-pocket reimbursements, approval process, rounds of revisions, and any other specifics should all be discussed to avoid surprises once the project begins. It’s always a good idea to establish a key contact to work with who can coordinate routing proofs and feedback. Working with a “committee” can create extra work and confusion.

Set realistic expectations
Clear expectations are key to getting everyone on the same page, and assuring the best possible experience for all. A pro bono project should not be treated any differently than working with paying clients. Often times pro bono work gets shuffled in between paying projects, but it’s important to always be professional and not let the client feel as though they are not as important. Schedule deadlines and appointments according to your schedule.

Negotiate a fair deal
Your work has value and the nonprofit knows it. Don’t be afraid to ask for things such as:

  • Design credit on printed materials or website.
  • Sponsorship listing on event programs, invitations,
    website, or any forms of advertising.
  • If applicable, request a complimentary membership
    or tickets for event access.
  • Attend a board meeting where you can be
    introduced to the entire board.
  • Social media promotions highlighting your company
    and the great work you are providing.
  • Highlight in a printed or online newsletter.

Pro bono clients evolve and can often become paying clients once they understand how valuable design can be. This has happened for us often and reason enough to be very picky when selecting your next pro bono client.

Community, Design Community, Design Industry, Partnership

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