Pro Bono or Free Work?

Have you ever walked into a grocery store and asked for some pro bono food, just because well, you know, you’re friends? Asked your doctor for surgery on the house to “help promote his practice?” If it sounds ridiculous, then why do friends, family and neighbors continue to request free work “if you’re not too busy?” Don’t get me wrong, I am a big fan of seeking out great pro bono work and using it to leverage your experience, portfolio or network. However it is high time we define the difference between charitable needs and leeches.

No question or job is “quick”

Those of us with unique technical knowledge are often more susceptible to the “quick question” requests than others. Most people are unsure where to turn when issues arise outside their knowledge base, so probably don’t realize that asking a lawyer for random advice, or a designer to “take a look” is the wrong approach. This is generally a first red flag about the potential client and when I start to slowly back away. You want a client who understands the value of your time, is willing to pay for your quality work, and understand when your choices are a design thing (or a lawyer thing).  Also, it sometimes bears explaining that if we are able to solve their problem quickly it probably indicates a level of expertise in the area, expertise that wasn’t as quick upon graduation and therefore wasn’t worth as much money.

Is It a Nonprofit or a Lack-of-Profit?

This example is one of my favorite flowcharts to navigate the waters of requests for free work. It shows that step one is to determine who is asking: is it your mother, a friend, a business, or charity? Then, is the charity legitimate or just a band? There are plenty of paths that end in “yes” and choosing to offer your services for free. However there are many more that are horrible situations where you will end up being taken advantage of. Save yourself the agony and recognize the project for what it is from the start.

How to Say No

Instead of shutting them down, I usually suggest that I am not currently in my office but would be more than happy to discuss their project under my normal work (i.e. paid) conditions. I also indicate that I rarely do more than one charitable project per year (usually every other year) and those projects are evaluated more seriously than my normal work. Finally, I offer suggestions of websites where they can find interns and volunteers.

How to Say Yes

If you are a recent grad, an unpaid internship may be a great idea since it allows you to get your foot in the door without undervaluing your salary, giving you more room for negotiation if they consider hiring you. I consider free work if they have a legitimate charity that has a legitimate need, I am actually interested in the cause and see a mutual benefit for all parties involved. In those cases I determine what my desired outcome is (freedom of design, networking, portfolio expansion, etc.) and prepare a formal proposal and contract in the same way as any other project. I also prepare an invoice indicating the total reduction in price because it is important to communicate the value of your work (also for tax purposes).

I have had a number of great experiences contributing free work to charities. The working relationship is completely different because the charity is grateful and excited to be solving their needs with a professional. Their willingness to try unique solutions and listen to your expertise is also often worth the price of admission. I would highly recommend finding pro bono work that suits your needs, just be sure to evaluate the situation carefully and then provide work at your normal level of professionalism.



  1. Avatar Kate Taylor Battle says:

    Great post, Karin! When I first started my practice, I did a lot of “pro bono” work for bands in Chicago, and now that some of them are making money, I still get phone calls for free advice. You really do have to set your limits and let others know that your time is valuable right from the beginning or else you end up being taken advantage of down the road. Of course, there are a few truly charitable opportunities/situations, but it’s important to really evaluate whether or not someone is just trying to low-ball your or if they are truly in need and plan to pay you back in kind sometime down the line when their situation improves.

  2. Avatar Wade Coye says:

    The really sad part I see in this article is the idea that grads almost have no choice but to take unpaid internships. In order to do what you really want to do it seems like they would take the work for free as long as they can get their “foot in the door.” Sadly, their foot usually just remains in the door with little to no leg room for shimmying in.

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