Rules for Doing Pro-Bono Work as a Freelancer

First of all, what is pro bono? Unlike traditional volunteering, pro bono is when you provide your skills and services as a designer voluntarily without payment (usually to a charity or non-profit). For beginners, pro bono work provides a golden opportunity to gain work experience, add pieces to their portfolio, build up a network of contacts in your area and maybe even land paid work as a result. Pro bono is viewed as a win-win for both parties. You get to work on a real-world project, while the organization you’re working for can finally receive help with their online presence.

Believe In What You’re Working For

It’s always good to create some personal guidelines before you do pro bono work. If you’re going to work for free, it might as well be for something you care about. For example, let’s say you have a passion for pets. Naturally, you could reach out to one of your local rescue shelters.Working for something you have a strong personal interest in will help create that warm, fuzzy feeling and give you added motivation to help out with their cause. 

Build Your Portfolio

Working pro bono offers you the opportunity to beef up your portfolio, so do a good job. Working pro bono is a great option if you’re still in school and looking to add quality pieces to your portfolio before you graduate. These projects usually provide you with creative latitude, meaning you have a greater amount of flexibility in what you produce. This is a great chance to show your creativity abilities without the normal interference of client demands.

Building your portfolio, while honing and learning new skills, also goes hand-in-hand. If you want to try out something new that maybe you wouldn’t have the chance to do on a paid project, go for it. This is a great place to practice and grow as a designer.  

Maintain Your Standard Process

Just because no money is being exchanged does not mean you should throw your design process to the wayside. It’s still a good idea to get them to sign a contract so that they can adhere to your schedule. These types of projects can drag on forever if expectations aren’t set first (which is your responsibility). If they are worried about signing a contract, ensure them it is something you do with all your clients, just to make sure the project is carried out with a definite plan. This means that discovery, wireframing and design phases should all be given strict timelines. If you need materials from them, make sure you get it when you ask.   

It would also be smart to track your hours for the project – just in case things start to get out of hand. You don’t want to be working on the same projects for months with no pay. Doing this consistently and updating the client on how many hours you’ve completed will help them realize your time does have value. This hopefully, will also motivate them to get any content, images, etc. to you as soon as possible. 

Understand When You’re Being Used

Just because you’re working with a non-profit or charity group, does not mean they should exploit your skills because of their status. Just because a company is non-profit, does not mean they are “no profit.” Many charities have marketing budgets just like any other company, so be weary when larger charities say they can’t afford to pay their designers. It’s a safer bet to volunteer at local, smaller charities. This way you can establish a connection with an organization that’s helping out in your community.

The Difference Between Spec Work & Pro Bono

The main difference between spec work and pro bono, is that spec work is“speculative work.” Pro bono tends to be more widely-accepted because you are working with a charity group or organization that promotes a good cause. Spec work is intended to use hundreds of designers competing against each other to get a steal on some design work. Understand the difference when you are searching for work, especially as a student. Stay away from sites like 99designs if you can. Instead, reach out to organizations in your area that are active, credible and reliable. This chart is also a great reference tool about when you should/shouldn’t work for free.