Back in the late 1990s, when I was unemployed and desperate, I went to a series of seminars designed to help me figure out what I was best at and, resulting, get hired by someone. In large part, the seminars were a howling waste of money (it didn’t take me long to figure out what the organization hosting the seminars was good at - separating desperate people from their cash), but the assessments I took did tell me something I pretty much already knew: I’m far more focused on helping people than I am on making big bucks. (No pat on the back for me, as I could help people a lot more if I could figure out how to make more money to use for helping folks.)
After digging myself even deeper into debt, I bit the bullet and went back to school teaching. It was years before I started working as a freelance and part-time Web designer, with my focus on designing sites for people and organizations whose primary aims are to lend a helping hand.
Most designers are do-gooders by nature who want to stay connected with the world. They’re optimistic, energetic, compassionate and idealistic in their beliefs about how things could be different. - David C. Baker
Web designers sometimes feel the urge to set aside their burning need for Big Bucks No Whammies and help some deserving person or organization by creating a pro bono (as in “free” with no strings attached) design for it. My first words on that subject: do it! There are a blue million deserving non-profits and charities out there helping feed and clothe people, build homes for the homeless, feed and shelter animals, raise money and awareness for battling diseases, help disaster victims, help special needs and economically disadvantaged children, work for political change … you name it, if there’s a need, someone’s addressing it.
This combination of admirable qualities is guaranteed to get you in trouble in your professional life. Trust me on this; no matter how clean and pure your creative well is, there’s somebody out there ready to pee in it. - Thomas Stephan
Designer David Airey tells us that pro bono, or more accurately pro bono publico, comes from a Latin phrase meaning “for the public good.” He writes: “The term is generally used to describe professional work undertaken voluntarily and without payment as a public service. Unlike traditional volunteerism, pro bono uses the specific skills of professionals to provide services to those who are unable to afford them.” The distinction is key. We’re not talking about knocking out on-the-fly designs on your lunch hour, or while you’re watching a MacGyver rerun marathon. We’re talking about providing professional designs, designs we’d be proud to deliver to a paying client, to a non-profit organization or charity without money changing hands.
My first paying job of any kind came when I was 13. The manager of the local Dairy Queen hired a friend of mine and me to clean up his parking lot. He paid each of us a dollar - one thin sawbuck. Considering we spent well over an hour cleaning that nasty patch of hot asphalt (emptied ashtrays, run over bags of uneaten food, dirty diapers tossed out someone’s car window), we felt taken advantage of, and we were right. Looking back on it several decades later, I would have felt better about the whole scuzzy experience had I just offered to do it for free.
Seriously. Think about it, and see if you don’t agree. I’ll leave the whys and wherefores of that particular observation as an exercise for the reader … and if you conclude I’m an idiot, well, you won’t be the first. But in my mind at least, the reason why I would feel better about doing that parking-lot job for free (or more accurately, on a pro bono basis) goes straight to the reason why I am such a strong proponent of pro bono design work.
I’m a huge fan of doing pro bono web design jobs. I do tons of work for local Chicago non-profits and charities I believe in as a way to boost their design quality and website functionality where they would otherwise have gone with something inadequate. - Tevi Hirschhorn
Pro Bono Work Isn’t Volunteerism
Graphic designer Thomas Stephan, whose series on pro bono work has proven invaluable for this article, draws a distinction between volunteerism and pro bono work. Basically, a volunteer does something for free, whether it be a Web design, a drywall job, or a Christmas meal, and goes home knowing he’s done something good for his community. That’s wonderful. Volunteers keep people in difficult circumstances alive and thriving.
If you’re not volunteering for something, you should be. But volunteerism isn’t pro bono work. Pro bono Web designs, to focus on our topic, involves several things, none of which include a designer or developer asking someone if they’d like this nifty free Web site they’ve already put together. Pro bono work involves contracts between the designer and the client.
It involves becoming familiar with the clients and the communities they serve, and designing for that client’s and that community’s needs. They might even involve an invoice as to how much the pro bono design they’ve been given would have cost if done on a commercial basis. Volunteers get asked to do more free work or make free contributions as a result of their donations. Pro bono designers get offered paying jobs as a result of their work.
I feel strongly that pro-bono work should not be done for reduced fees. It should either be at the normal rate or free. Discounted fees cause confusion and resentment: If we offer a favorable deal, we expect something in return, but if we get full price, there’s no resentment, and if we give it away entirely, there’s no expectation of anything in return. - David C. Baker
Choosing a Recipient
But how do you decide which organization to choose? And just as importantly, what’s the right way to go about taking on a pro bono design for a charity or non-profit?
I’ve read a lot of articles on the ’Net talking about the subject from a designer/developer point of view, and most of them miss the main point. The biggest single reason for doing a pro bono design for a charitable or non-profit organization is not to pad your portfolio, hone your skills, develop your networking, or whatever. The best reason for undertaking such a project is because you want to help. It’s your way of making a charitable contribution. Take animal shelters and rescue organizations, for example. One of my first pro bono projects as a freelancer was for a local rescue organization. I chose them because my wife and I take care of a relatively good-sized colony of feral and abandoned cats. We do it ourselves, without an organization, fund-raising efforts, or anything, but we have reached out to some quite helpful organizations for assistance (those cats eat a lot!).
In the process of searching for organizations that might help us feed our ferals, I came across a local organization that takes in stray, abandoned, and abused dogs. They couldn’t help us, but after I read through some of the material on their site, I decided I could help them. I couldn’t go out to their shelter and help feed, bathe, and clean, but I was able to give their site a much-needed do-over. Because they barely eke out enough in donations to keep feeding their pups, I couldn’t see myself taking money out of the pups’ food fund to design the site, so I offered to do it for free.
It isn’t my best work, in part because I was too unwilling to redo the site from scratch instead of “tweaking” the already-existing site, and one of these days I’ll do it over and do it better. (It’s also worth noting that I saved them nearly $150 a year by helping them switch hosts.) You know where your heart lies. Find an organization whose goals and agenda matches your own.
Author and graphic designer Jeff Fisher notes that he only chooses a group for his pro bono efforts when he feels passionate about that group's cause.
It may be obvious, but remember that almost all non-profits and charities represented on the Web already have their own sites, and therefore are candidates for upgrades and redesigns instead of entirely new sites. There’s nothing wrong with revamping an existing Web site instead of doing one from scratch, and it might be a good way to start your pro bono experience. But there are groups out there with no website at all - or just a Facebook or Twitter page, or a “boilerplate” page on some other organization’s site, such as this Petfinder listing. Instead of using the “umbrella” site to find an animal or a soup kitchen, use the site to find an organization that could really use a site of their own.
I’d also recommend starting locally. Most of the pro bono designs I’ve done have been for local organizations - the latest with an organization working with my school’s community. There are several reasons to focus on local non-profits and charities. The larger, national or state/provincial organizations probably already have a strong design in place, whether it was contributed or contracted. And by working with a local organization, you get to meet the client face-to-face.
Sticking with the animal-rescue and shelter organizations for examples, let’s take a look at a couple of the sites for relatively large US animal non-profit organizations.
Here’s a shot of the North Shore Animal League site, a large animal rescue organization in upstate New York.
It’s a heartbreaking photo, to be sure. More to the point of this article, it’s a beautifully designed site. A glance at this site should tell you this organization probably doesn’t need your design assistance (though they’d love a contribution). Let’s look at another organization’s site, Small Paws, an organization devoted to rescuing a particular breed, the Bichon, on a nationwide level.
Again, these guys have a well-done and strongly functional site. As with their sister organization above, they’d surely appreciate a donation or an adoption, but they don’t need us to offer a site design. Here’s an organization that, to my eye, might be up for a pro bono redesign, Treasured Friends, a rescue and adoption organization in the Dallas area:
Just by looking at it, you can tell that this may have been a labor of love, but perhaps not of proper design. Looking under the hood, you’ll notice that it lacks, among other critical elements, a valid doctype. This site needs help - maybe yours. (When you check the footer, you see that the site was done by a real design firm, so you might tread carefully here to avoid encroaching on a contracted design).
And here’s one that really, really needs assistance, found almost at random:
Rocky’s Rescue describes itself as “a small rescue for homeless cats in Harford County, Maryland and other surrounding counties.” These guys are working their mitts off to help the abandoned and feral cats in their area, and obviously haven’t had the time or the abilities to create for themselves a real website. This is a generic page on the Petfinder site; as of this writing, there are 13,546 organizations listed on the Petfinder site, most of which have pages almost identical to Rocky’s. If animals are your area of interest, there are somewhere around 13,546 opportunities to create something good for someone. I imagine the good people at Rocky’s, and the over 13,000 other organizations, would be able to help more animals if they had a real website to attract volunteers and donors.
And this is just a listing for animals! When you factor in the organizations that feed, clothe, and shelter people, get candidates elected and issues before the citizenry, help disaster victims, help special needs and economically disadvantaged children, and collect money for research into diseases such as cancer and AIDS, the number of organizations out there that could use your help are literally too many to count.
Not sure where to start? Here’s an incomplete list, adapted from a list by designer Thomas Stephan and augmented by yours truly:
- Religious organizations and churches
- Social service agencies (if they are government-based, your options here may be limited)
- Private adoption and foster care agencies
- Community projects and neighborhood organizations
- Community theaters and playhouses
- Public school projects
- Private schools and academic organizations
- Private and public after-school programs
- Shelters for animals, adults, and/or children
- Political and issue-based organizations
- Food banks and other aid distribution organizations
- Disease research and awareness raising groups
Stephan provides a quite exhaustive list of design industry volunteer groups that can help you find the right pro bono client for you. Another place to hook up is through the Taproot Foundation, an organization devoted to bringing pro bono work of all kinds to deserving organizations and individuals.
Tennesee designer Brian K. McDaniel tells of one of his first paying designs, a site for a Christian musician (Brian is a pastor who got his start designing pro bono sites for churches). His site netted the musician some $10,000 in business in the first year of its implementation, and started McDaniel on a path of providing sites to needy organizations, sometimes at a reduced rate, sometimes on a pro bono basis. “And in almost every situation the small amount of time I gave away or discounted resulted in a significantly larger paying job coming my way, directly related to the freebie or just randomly crossing my path,” he writes.
“Either way, I have built a successful track history of giving my services away and consequently receiving much more than I have ever given.” This won’t be the case for everyone, especially commercial designers and design/development firms who can’t spend more than a fraction of their time on pro bono projects. But for the burgeoning freelancer, the part-timer, or even the enthusiastic amateur looking to augment his income with a few well-chosen designs, McDaniel’s story might shine a light on their own path.
“Selfish” Reasons to Do a Pro Bono Design
Pro bono designing is a two-way street. You ought to get something out of the deal yourself. Not long ago, Six Revisions author Maria Malidaki gave us some good reasons to offer your services for free. Let’s take a quick look at her reasons, and add a few more to the list.
Doing creative work for a local nonprofit organization can be a great way to promote your talents and abilities. I actually look at such projects as part of the marketing plan for my business. - Jeff Fisher
It is not selfish to look out for yourself while you’re doing good. - David C. Baker
Absolutely. As Malidaki points out, if you go out of your way to create a strong design for a non-profit or charitable organization, you gain some cachet with your paying clients. Potential clients looking through your portfolio expect to see a half-dozen (or more) paying clients. Having some non-profits that you identify as pro bono designs not only makes those sites stand out, but also shows the potential client that you have more than mercenary reasons for designing sites, and that you have a stake in helping improve your community. Moreover, people in the non-profit communities (and your local business community, if you’ve done work for a local organization) see your work and take note of you, sometimes for paying jobs down the road.
Every pro bono design I’ve done has resulted in a paying job afterwards, usually from someone I had never heard of who contacted me. When you’ve got clients coming to your door asking to hire you, you’re in a good position. The same goes for designers relying on their portfolios to land jobs at design and/or development firms. There’s nothing wrong with using your local newspaper or TV news broadcast to promote yourself, in the context of the spiffy design you donated to the worthy cause. Nor is it “pushy” to ask that the organization send out a press release about the new design that mentions you. And make sure you use your own social media to promote your contribution.
A Chance to Hone Your Skills
This is a great opportunity to experiment with new techniques and ideas. Want to practice using some new CSS3 techniques with graceful degradation? Maybe you saw a new jQuery technique that seems useful for your pro bono design. Or maybe you want to practice creating more sophisticated layouts. Whatever it may be, pro bono designs give you the chance to stretch your wings a bit. Just make sure that you remember pro bono clients deserve the same level of usability, elegance, and customer satisfaction as the guy writing you the checks. Don’t get carried away with implementing techniques you’re really not sure about, and don’t give the pro bono client a substandard product just because he/she isn’t a paying client.
Boosting Your Portfolio
It never hurts to have new and varied designs in your portfolio. If you’re tired of showing your clients the same old designs, add some variety in your portfolios by doing a pro bono design for a non-profit or charity. Remember, the prospective clients will look as closely at the freebie as they do the paid designs, so don’t skimp on quality. The folks blogging for the American web design and development firm Velvet Blues, in a cautionary post about pro bono designs, say that some pro bono designs are little more than “portfolio fluffers.” Probably something to avoid - if you’re doing a pro bono design strictly to spice up your portfolio, then you’re doing the design for the wrong reasons.
Designer David Airey recommends that people new to the field, particularly students whose portfolios are filled with fictitious designs done for a class or just to give them something to display, do a couple of pro bono designs to flesh out their portfolios with “live,” “in the wild” designs that actually serve a purpose. There's nothing wrong with this, as long as you remember your primary purpose is not to pad your portfolio, but to help an organization.
There's nothing wrong with doing a pro bono design that comes with “strings” attached. If an organization agrees to steer future paying work your way, refer possible clients to you, promote your design business, give you free or cut-rate services, or whatever in return for your product, that’s all to the good. However, I’d recommend that you negotiate such deals after establishing that you’re offering a pro bono design, one that does not require such strings. Going to a prospective client and offering to do a design in return for this or that consideration isn’t a pro bono offer, it’s a commercial offer that relies on something other than money for recompense; in other words, it’s not pro bono, but bartering. (There’s nothing wrong with bartering a design for other considerations, it’s just not pro bono work in my book. You may disagree.) If you choose to go this route, make sure you note the expected considerations in your contract.
Demonstrating Your Commitment to Your Community
When you’re soliciting clients or positions at design firms, one of the things they will notice is what, if anything, you’ve given back to the community. Having some well-done pro bono pieces for community organizations in your portfolio not only gives the client or job interviewer something else to look at, it shows something tangible you’ve done for your community, on a not-for-profit basis. And it gives you the experience to be able to talk informatively about your community’s needs and how you’ve done your part to address them. You’re not just some hired gunslinger who works entirely for mercenary reasons, you’re a committed part of your community. That might make all the difference in landing that new client or that new job.
You need to demonstrate how you deal with constraint and the best way to get that is to work with clients. Good design, after all, provides a solution that satisfies both the needs of the audience with the requirements of the organization. So find a non-profit, volunteer your time, and redesign their Web site. - Jeffrey Veen, writing about filling portfolios with valid, marketable designs
When choosing your pro bono client, remember that you should always get something back for your work. It does not need to be monetary compensation, but at minimum, you should get some recognition for your work. - Velvet Blues
In Part Two of this series, we'll take a look at some of the do's and don'ts of pro bono design.