Pro Bono No Bueno?

Yesterday my AIGA guild gathered for our monthly cuppa joe and design discussion. Our topic: the aptly-titled “Pro Bono No Bueno?” by Jen Stewart.

  • When asked how many graphic designers periodically do pro-bono work (free or greatly discounted), we all raised our hands.
  • When asked how many of these projects turn into headaches, again, we all raised our hands (kind of like the headache we’re getting from the construction happening in front of our venue, Ground Zero Coffee Company).
  • When asked if any of these result in something meaningful and beneficial, we laughed and most of us put our hands down.

C’mon! Not meaningful? Not beneficial?

After talking it out, our group came up with helpful ideas that promise a more successful project for both the graphic designer and the client. After all, our goal is a final product that will best benefit the client, whether they are paying or not.

Establish good communication

The most effective projects happen when the graphic designer and client work together as a team to accomplish a goal. This is true for pro-bono projects, as well. Clear, detailed and timely communication is a must.

Often pro-bono projects are for non-profits, which commonly are committee-based organizations. The best design committees consist of three people or less, with one person serving as a designated spokesperson. This person should communicate to the graphic designer.

Define goals and stick to them

Objectives…Scope of project…Deadlines…Roles and responsibilities. These are things the designer and client must carefully define. They then need to stick to them.

Staying on course ensures the project can be completed on schedule and according to the original goals.

Know the value of the project

The biggest frustration of my designing peers is that pro-bono clients don’t understand the value of the product they’re receiving. Unfortunately, “the less paid, the less valued” is a common woe.

Designer’s aren’t looking for an ego pat (although promotional recognition sure is nice—after all, business success is what enables us to offer pro-bono work). Rather, when clients know the value of the product, they’re more likely to fulfill their responsibilities and the end result is so much better.

If your designer doesn’t reveal what he would normally charge for your project, come right out and ask. You’ll benefit by knowing!

Work with a contract

A contract protects both the designer and the client, and should be created through back and forth discourse. It should outline the project; who will do what, when it will be done, and for what cost. It should create an overall understanding for both sides.

Basically, a contract fulfills all of the points listed above and is always necessary, even for the pro-bono project.

Adunate Word & Design is proud to take on two pro-bono projects per year—one large and one small. These are projects I have passions for and strongly support.

Adunate is currently booked for its 2011 pro-bono projects. However, if you’re one of those wonderful people who plans ahead and wish to apply for assistance in 2012, please click here.

11 thoughts on “Pro Bono No Bueno?”

  1. I think you’re being generous when you say pro-bono projects can be a headache. I work in non-profits (almost like pro-bono:-) and to say there are challenges is putting it mildly.

    How about this? I met with the board last night. Late start. Not everyone present. Lots of diversion. Three hour meeting. Not much accomplished. Next meeting: next month.

    Pay? Zero. It’s pro-bono.

  2. I’ve had some great pro bono experiences but I think it’s like you said, you have to communicate and really set the scope of the project. A lot of times, what we designers view as the organization taking advantage of us (like asking for a hundred revisions…grrrr), is really them not understanding the process. They don’t realize how much work goes into each revision. So it’s up to us to educate them. Tell them what you will do before you start the project and how many times you’ll do it. I have pro bono projects I’m really proud of because they really made a difference and the organization was very appreciative.

  3. It’s VERY important the non-profit organization realize all aspects of the project. The problem I run into is that they don’t fulfill their end of responsibilities. Often committee members are volunteers or at least over-worked employees for the non-profit. Understandably so, they’re pretty busy.

    But you know what? I’m busy. Everyone is busy. Busy is not an excuse. Since I’m giving them this expensive gift that has a very high rate of return, I expect them to uphold their end of the project just as I do for them.

    I like the clause in your application where you “take a firm stand in commanding respect and responsibility for the project at hand.” This is good. I also like the idea of an application. You have to do an application when you apply for a grant. Why not one for pro-bono work too. I need to be more forthcoming with my requirements!

  4. Tim, I have to admit I often agree with your assessment:-) But I also have had some great experiences with pro-bono projects.

    I’m currently doing communications for my church’s fund appeal campaign. I’ve gotten to know some great people I otherwise wouldn’t have. And, while I’m not expecting much business return from this, it’s one that I have a strong passion for. So in that sense, there’s a benefit.

    I forgot to mention this in my post – in our group discussion, it was brought up that AIGA suggests members volunteer a specified percentage of billing hours to pro -bono. Does anyone know anything about this?

    If nothing else, I feel a responsibility to give back, or pay it forward, as we now like to say. We have this gift of talent. Once in a while we need to use it simply to help others.

  5. I too have had good experiences doing pro-bono. Sometimes there’s no obvious business return, other than the appreciation of those benefiting from my work. Other times, later down the road, I’ve gotten a job because of the pro-bono I did years back.

    That said, I agree the designer and recipient need to sit down and go over some definite guidelines. I’m very obvious when I point out I will put my paying clients first. I too use a contract (what professional wouldn’t?) and my reason for doing this is because I’ve been taken advantage of too many times.

    The key is this: If you act like a professional, you’ll be treated like a professional.

  6. In a non-profit world of low budgets and high expectations I have been asked to do a myriad of projects – large and small, for nothing more than a “thank you” and the satisfaction of helping a cause or organization I have an interest in.

    On its face, it is a great thing. I feel good and am glad to serve, others benefit and a cause is furthered. The issue I have found seems to be mirrored above: from time to time the less a group pays, the less they are actually invested in doing their part to support my work. From time to time assigned tasks necessary to help me complete their project are left unfinished by the project stakeholders and deadlines eventually missed. Even with pro-bono contracts and clearly stated expectations.

    Lesson learned: I am happy to help others and use the gifts I was given, but I am now much more selective about who I am willing to invest my own capital in.

  7. All of the above is happening to me right now. I’m midway through a pro-bono project for a non-profit organization, of which I’m a member. The committee knows I’m a designer yet they’re having difficulty accepting the professionalism I have to offer.

    The head of the committee is particularly frustrating. He knows nothing about advertising, design, copywriting and how they all play an integral role in the project’s success. Yet, because he’s an expert in his own field, his opinion holds great sway (try explaining to an educator with many degrees that center justification is hard to read or his finely written 300 words could be better said in 100).

    I have a feeling if the committee was paying me, our meetings would go a lot smoother (especially if they knew how much they’d be paying!). I’m sure they wouldn’t waste so much time and they’d let me do my job.

    I’m far enough along into this project to realize truly benefiting the organization is not going to happen. I’m best off just giving them what they want and accepting that the end result is going to be sub-par and semi-effective. How sad.


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