Co.Design

10 Tips For Designers (And Anyone Else) Working Pro Bono

Designers and their clients embarking on pro bono projects should demand that the demands are no less—and sometimes even greater—than regular fee-generating work.

Designers can outline a project down to the nitty-gritty detail, but scopes often creep, clients get overwhelmed, and designers themselves sometimes miss the mark. This is true of pro bono design as well. But for some reason, designers and clients often lose sight of the fact that pro bono projects are really no different, no less demanding, and no less important than regular fee-generating work. Sometimes, in fact, they’re more so.

The following checklist offers ten tips for designers working pro bono. It’s written from the viewpoint that pro bono projects can be good for business—as such firms as Pentagram and Perkins+Will can readily attest—but also good for communities and good for the soul. Keeping these pointers in mind, you’ll be well on your way to a successful pro bono project and quickly come to realize that many of the lessons also apply to regular fee-generating work.

1. Follow your passions

Pro bono projects aligned with your biggest passions can and should yield your best work. They can inspire you to overcome just about any obstacle thrown in your way, relish working long hours, and get you out of bed in the morning. Skill sets are transferrable; passions, not so much.

2. Be selective

A nonprofit is more than entitled to ask, but it’s always at the discretion of firms whether to take on a project pro bono—in part or whole. Most important, projects should align with a firm’s best skills, values, and, again, passions.

3. Define the scope

Every project, from day one, needs parameters. Even discovery, exploratory, and pre-development phases should be given clear deadlines. Pro bono projects need firm end dates, which aid both the service provider and the beneficiary. The last thing either party needs is for the goal posts to keep moving. If expectations must be adjusted, which of course happens from time to time, transparency and communication are key.

4. Budget and invoice

Never, ever get into a project without a clear declaration of how much time you or your firm is able and willing to commit. Track those numbers by budgeting and invoicing (using market-rate fees and real numbers, even if you balance it all out to zero). Doing so regularly and consistently will help both parties come to realize that your time has value and isn’t unlimited. The same goes for your pro bono client’s time, by the way.

5. Raise expectations

Social sector leaders are notorious for undervaluing and underestimating design. One could reasonably say that shabby spaces and makeshift collateral are badges of honor among nonprofits, as if they somehow demonstrate financial need to funders, even at the expense of professionalism. Especially in their startup days, nonprofits are necessarily boot-strappers and DIYers, so it’ll be no small task to raise expectations—but a huge contribution if you succeed.

6. Become ambassadors

Designers have a unique opportunity to become part of the team in advocating for their client’s cause. Just as clients can often articulate the experience of being in a beautifully designed space in evocative terms, designers can talk about an organization’s mission in equally new ways. Designers can also host friend- or fund-raisers in their office or in another client’s space. Seeing the open layout of a design firm can be eye-opening for a nonprofit that’s never imagined life without private offices or cubicles.

7. Promote it

Pro bono work should be presented front and center on a firm’s website, in its portfolio, and in prospective client presentations. It demonstrates your practice’s commitment to your community and to good causes. Most clients are sophisticated enough not to do so, but if your pro bono work comes up in fee negotiations, simply explain that your pro bono work is reserved for nonprofit clients that couldn’t otherwise afford your services. End of story.

8. Enlist others

Your professional networks—other consultants, contractors, material manufacturers, vendors, and even competing firms—are rich sources of in-kind donations and services. Don’t be the slightest bit shy of asking them to chip in; if they’re moved by your passion for a project, they will, and if it’s simply not the right time, they’ll decline with no hard feelings. Your belief in a cause may be enough to attract a host of recruits. The challenge then becomes how to select the best providers for the needs of your project.

9. Document the process

There are few things more powerful than before-and-after images, particularly of physical objects and spaces. Lug your office’s digital camera to every meeting, and hire a professional photographer at the end, even if it means splitting their (nonprofit rate) fee with the client or others. Photographs quickly communicate the difference that design can make. Such documentation needs to be deliberate and should happen at every opportunity along the way, more than just beginning and end. After all, it is as much process and function as it is product and form. Project milestones are also opportunities to update and draw in new funders and in-kind donors.

10. Spread the word

The media, other designers, social-sector leaders, and funders are hungry for genuine "feel good" stories. Talk and write about your pro bono projects at every opportunity and encourage your clients to do the same. Whenever possible, let your clients speak; what they have to say about the process and finished product may surprise you, or even move you to tears. They will no doubt thank and recognize you as well as others involved along the way. Likewise, you can and should remain an ambassador for your pro bono clients and their cause—and not be at all surprised if it results with an invitation to join their board of directors, generates new client leads, or simply inspires you to do more.

[Image: Flickr user Sterlic]

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3 Comments

  • jmco

    I would add to always work local or with someone you know if farther than a reasonable drive/train ride away.
    It is like love. A long distance relationship when there is no commitment from one  person (fee from the client) does not last. The designer is the one who always gets the Dear John letter.

  • Wes O'Haire

    Nice John! It's easy to forget on probono/passion projects that market/project principles still apply. I'm designing predominantly for NPO's and social entrepreneurs so this article went straight to the Evernote for me haha

  • Travis Cohn

    Thanks John, for your tips on such a relevant subject, as it is such a reality, and potential oppurtunity (if done correctly), for most designers. I particularly appreciate your premise that pro bono work is (and Must be treated as) as demanding as for hire work. I have determined to do a limited number of pro bono projects per year, and to insist on a contract for each and everyone, as you seem to recommend. I'll be looking forward to any other thoughts you have on this subject in the future. Thanks again for sharing your experience. 
    Travis Cohn