Pro Bono Designs for Non-Profits and Charities, Part 2

In Part 1 of this series, we looked at some reasons why you might choose to do pro bono Web designs for non-profit or charitable organizations. In the second and final installment, we'll look at some of the essentials of pro bono designs, and some tips for creating great designs that serve both your interests and your client's.

Pro Bono Designs for Non-Profits and Charities, Part 2

Essentials of a Pro Bono Design Process

Use a Contract

Seriously. In fact, use the contract you give paying clients. Modify it to show that the contract is “pro bono” instead of costing the client X amount of money (avoid the term “free”), and modify it to give yourself some flexibility on time and delivery dates. Still, 90% of the contract should be the very same as the one you give to a client who’s shelling out the bucks. If you’d like to see a pro bono contract to use as a template or as a source of ideas, designer Thomas Stephan gives a good example, with a bit of a walkthrough for those who need it. Set start dates and end dates, and stick to them.

Make the Offer Out of a Sincere Desire to Help

You should also consider why you’re doing the pro bono design in the first place. Are you doing it out of a sincere desire to help the organization, or to show off your chops? Are you trying to stick your thumb in the eye of former clients who couldn’t see how brilliant your concepts were, and parade your fancy techniques in the pro bono design? Non-profits and charities aren’t creative outlets, nor are they suitable as a means to vindicate you to unappreciative clients.

Treat the Project Just as You Would a Paying Project

Make sure to take the pro bono job as seriously as you would a paying job. In my pro bono contract, I specifically state that my paying jobs may take precedence over the pro bono design, and I specifically do not set an end date or "milestones" for this or that aspect of the design to be completed. Having said all that, you would do your client a disservice by treating his/her design as a diversion instead of a serious undertaking. As designer David C. Baker notes, it’s a mistake to think that the non-profit or charity “must be content with the scraps” of your time and expertise. It’s unfair to take that position. Your pro bono clients are as deserving as your paying clients. If you find yourself grumbling, “I’m giving them this design for free, they should just shut up and be grateful!” then you may need to step back from the project, reassess your reasons for doing it, and either come at it again with a new attitude or step away entirely.

Treat your pro-bono work and clients like paid jobs and they’ll return the favor. - Thomas Stephan

Don’t Charge the Pro Bono Client for Expenses

This is a real downer for client and designer/developer alike - not only does the client get a spiffy new Web site, but he also gets an unexpected bill. If you want to buy a stock photo for your client’s design, buy a license for a proprietary code snippet, pay someone to make a video presentation, or whatever, that’s fine, but be willing to absorb the expense yourself. It’s unfair to represent yourself as a pro bono contributor and then ask the client to pony up for your expenses. If you must do this (and I strongly suggest you don’t), then include it up front in the contract.

Keep Clients in the Loop

Consultant Jayne Cravens retells a story from fundraiser Tony Poderis, who tells of a graphic design firm who created a fundraising slogan and logo for his group. “Bless them, but they were so excited about the project that they wanted to ’surprise’ us at the end of their work,” Poderis writes, so they wouldn’t let Poderis and his staff see the product as it evolved. Unsurprisingly, the “reveal” was a difficult situation, as the logo and slogan were unacceptable. You would keep a paying client in the loop, sending periodic updates and soliciting input throughout the process. Do the same for your pro bono clients.

Avoid Spec Work

Spec work is, literally, work on speculation - you do the site, either a conceptual mockup or sometimes the whole thing, and then hawk it to a prospective client. The guys at No!Spec do a good job of why spec work is almost always a bad idea. There are times when a freelancer or even a commercial design has to do work on spec, but you shouldn’t do it if you don’t have to, and you never have to do a pro bono design.

Putting pro-bono work in the same box as spec is like calling volunteering for the Peace Corps slavery. It’s just not correct. Taking a stand against spec work is great, but it’s easy to say ‘I won’t work for free.’ We also need to be sure that we share some of our talents and skills with those that would benefit greatly from them but simply don’t have the means … and continue to encourage colleagues to do the same. A few hours of your time as a designer can often be much more valuable than a cash donation equivalent to your hourly rate. - Jason Duerr

Set Expectations Up Front

Set expectations off the bat, and don’t let yourself get roped into doing more than you intended. Some non-profit clients have spent little to no time considering how they brand themselves, for example; they might have an amateurishly done logo, or a poorly chosen slogan, or little or no presence in social media such as Facebook. Decide up front what you will and won’t do for the client. There’s nothing wrong with offering to redesign their logo, if you’re up for the challenge, but don’t let yourself get roped into a situation such as completing the design and having the client come back with a request to redo the logo and the design to match the new graphic. That’s project creep, or in plain terms, more work than you may have bargained for.

In my pro bono contracts and in my conversation with my pro bono clients, I state up front that I don’t consider myself a graphic designer, and I will not design or redesign any of their graphics. Whatever logo they have is what’s getting used, and more than likely I will base the design off the colors in the logo. Similarly, you shouldn’t be expected to take over their social-media outreach, or come up with a marketing campaign for their billboards or business cards, unless you intend to do so from the outset. Set clear expectations at the beginning of the project, and don’t do more than contracted for without, at the minimum, a new contract or a contract addendum (just as you’d do in a paying job). And if you tell the client that you’re willing to do the design on a pro bono basis, but the social media and branding is going to cost them, that’s all right, too. Thomas Stephan provides a detailed walkthrough for working with a pro bono client on a professional basis.

Regrettably, many well-intentioned projects have left bitter tastes in the mouths of creatives and clients alike. In the vast majority of these cases, the problems could have been prevented if only there had been a clear understanding up front of each party's responsibilities and roles. - School of Visual Concepts

Ensure that You Have a Single Point of Contact

The organization you’re working for might employ two people and a handful of volunteers. Fine, pick one (or have the organization pick one) and work with that person. Or the organization might have layers upon layers of management and bureaucracy. Fine, insist that you’re working with one person, and contact only that person with questions, ideas, contractual issues, and so forth. Let that person navigate the briny waters of their organization’s management structure. The organization might have a half-dozen people who need to sign off on your proposal before you can move forward.

That’s fine, that’s how that organization works, but it’s not your headache. Your contact person can handle those half-dozen irritable bureaucrats. Your job is pushing pixels and wrangling design ideas. The organization might want you to meet, say, all the members of its marketing committee, or even come in periodically for “updates.” No problem, wear an office outfit, be sure to smile and remember names, and continue to insist that for your day-to-day work, you’ll work with a single person.

Forget about Tax Breaks

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that you can take your pro bono work off your taxes, at least not in the United States. (Designers in other countries work under different tax laws, so this may not apply to you.) The US Internal Revenue Service will not allow you or your firm to deduct the value of your time or services — so if you spend fifteen hours on a pro bono contract and you charge $100/hour for your commercial services, don’t try deducting $1500 from your tax return, or you may get a visit from some government accountants eager to comb through the last ten years of your business filings. You can, however, deduct expenses incurred in the job, if you donate your time and efforts to a qualifying organization.

Understand that Non-Profits and Charities Don’t Operate the Same as Businesses

Don’t treat your non-profit or charitable client the same as you would a for-profit business client. The needs, motivations, atmosphere, everything is quite different in the non-profit and charity communities. Consultant Jayne Cravens writes: ”The nonprofit sector encompasses important, unique expertise and resources; pro bono experiences are an opportunity for for-profit folks to learn about the vital work that nonprofit organizations undertake, and learn about approaches that might work back in the for-profit world.” Don’t tell the non-profits what they need; ask them what you can do to serve their needs.

Be Prepared to Say No

There are times when you just can’t accept a pro bono project. Maybe you or your firm has too many projects going already. Maybe you don’t particularly like the organization making the request, or don’t have much use for its mission. Maybe you have reason to believe that you and the organization wouldn’t work well together. Or maybe you just don't want to do it. Whatever the reason, you have the right to say no. Just do so in a straightforward manner, without insulting the person or organization making the request. It’s actually better to turn down a project than accept it on a “whenever I get to it” basis and then not do it for weeks or months.

Tips on Designing a Pro Bono Site

Make Key Decisions Up Front

Before you go prowling the Internet to find a suitable pro bono client, or before you listen to some deserving entity’s pitch, decide how much time and effort you (or your firm) can spend on doing pro bono work. If you’re working at a firm, or heading a firm, you might want to conceive, create, and apply written guidelines to cover the issue of working pro bono. Some firms restrict themselves to doing one pro bono project a year. You can choose to do twenty if you like, but don’t spread yourself too thin - you won’t do your community any good by driving yourself out of business by doing too many unpaid jobs.

Don’t Hesitate to Choose Clients Who Can Help You

There’s nothing wrong with choosing a client with an eye to how your design can help you in the future. For example, designer Mike Davidson (the founder of Newsvine and the creator of sIFR) writes about his first pro bono client, the Seattle Show, the annual advertising and design show for the Seattle area. Davidson designed the show’s site on a pro bono basis, and as a result, established contacts with graphic designers, art directors, ad agencies, and the like. For an investment of about 40 hours a year (he’s done the site for several years), he has reaped an enormous amount of indirect benefits from meeting and working with new people in the design and advertising communities.

Add Necessary Elements to Designs

Decide what elements to include in your design based on what non-profits require. Non-profits live and die on community participation, from monetary donations to volunteers giving their time and resources, so point your design in that direction. The organization’s purpose should be front and center - if the organization’s mission statement is written in plain language and not in jargonese, you might feature that. Freelancer Lee Munroe gives us an example from an organization’s site. Because the purpose statement is so lucid, I don’t need to tell you what the site’s about. The first thing you see upon loading the front page is the phrase, “Help rebuild lives in Rwanda with every purchase of our beautiful cards”.

Everything you need is in those twelve words: a call to action (“help rebuild lives”), an explanation of who’s getting the help (needy people in Rwanda), and an explication of exactly what you can do to help (buy cards). After the purpose statement, you want visitors to know exactly how the recipients will be helped: will they receive free rice from the United Nations, free books through literacy programs, or what? Including photos of those being helped; whether to use bright, happy photos of people/animals after they’ve received the assistance, or sad, heartbreaking photos of people/animals before they’ve received help, is your call and your client’s. Make it easy to see how to donate money: the screenshot below is an actual-size shot of the American Red Cross’s donate button. It’s very plain, simple, and functional in virtually all browsers; in other words, it works.

Red Cross

Some charities and non-profits like to keep tabs on how much has been donated to date, either to meet a goal (“We need $20,000 by Friday!”) or to keep people abreast of the money coming in. I’ve seen arguments both for and against this; ultimately, your client will make this call. Contact information and social networking is a must, of course: the site visitors have to know how to donate (and how easy it is to do!), how to volunteer their time and knowledge, where their efforts will be put to use, and so forth. If your client Twitters, Facebooks, or the like, that contact information should be prominently placed, either with the usual clickable buttons or something equally obvious.

Stretch Your Creative Wings

I’ve said before that pro bono designs deserve your best efforts, and they are not the place to get rowdy with code or design elements that you have not yet mastered. Having said that, pro bono designs do give you a place to try new and different things. Commercial clients often want something very, very specific, leaving you with little room for creative flexibility (a situation made worse when the client wants his site to be “just like my competitor’s, except different”). Pro bono clients often give you more room to be creative and independent in your thinking. Often, non-profit organizations don’t have people with any real experience designing Web sites or graphics, and they rely on you to make those decisions for them.

Credit Yourself

Make sure you credit yourself in your design, and make sure that you put that credit in your contract. I go farther than some designers - I actually create a separate “credit” page, independent of the design, that includes my contact information as well as credit for the elements I’ve used from other developers (for example, I often use Drew McLellan’s PNG/IE6 “Supersleight” transparency code for making PNGs transparent in Internet Explorer 6, and when I use his code, I always credit him on this page). I link to it with a small, unobtrusive text link in the bottom of the design's footer. For me, it kills three birds with one stone: I give myself a plug with a page that echoes the design of my own site, I give credit and acknowledgements to those whose work helped me create the page, and I tie my own ’Net identity in with that of the client’s. You may not feel comfortable going this far, but I’ve never had a client object yet. (Some non-profits and charities have specific policies against certain types of promotional activities, such as posting your firm’s logo on their site. Some may even prohibit credits entirely. Be ready to be flexible here).

Showcase of Pro Bono Sites

Some organizations are coy about their site being a pro bono work. There are varying legitimate reasons for this, but the upshot is that it’s not always easy to discover which non-profit’s or charity’s site is a legitimate pro bono design. Thankfully, the folks at the Taproot Foundation like to share their success stories, which include successfully implemented pro bono designs. I’ve selected ten sites almost at random from their “Completed” list of pro bono designs. The selected screenshots below will give you an idea of what’s going on in the world of giving by design.

Alpha Workshops
Alpha Workshops

Center for the Pacific Asian Family
Center for the Pacific Asian Family

Central City Community Outreach
Central City Community Outreach

Chicago Volunteer Legal Services Foundation
Chicago Volunteer Legal Services Foundation

Foothill Family Services
Foothill Family Services

Harlem Stage
Harlem Stage

Highbridge Community Life Center
Highbridge Community Life Center

Martha's Table, Inc.
Martha's Table, Inc.

New Leaders for New Schools
New Leaders for New Schools

Sitar Arts Center
Sitar Arts Center

Final Thoughts

In the end, the best advice I can give is to give it your all if you’re giving it away. - Thomas Stephan

Service to others is the payment you make for your space here on earth. - Muhammed Ali

Some worry that pro bono designing somehow “hurts” the design industry. I've seen several articles and blog comments expressing this view. Me, I don't buy it. There are certainly instances where non-profit or charitable organizations accept pro bono designs when they might have agreed to hire a designer instead. Certainly some designers have legitimate gripes about having a pro bono offer cost them a paying job. And some designers have valid complaints about being treated poorly because they were “only” working on a pro bono basis. But I can't believe those instances are very frequent, and certainly not frequent enough to do harm to the industry as a whole. If you lose out on a contract to a pro bono proposal, you might consider what you can do to present your services as a superior option, making yourself worthy of payment even when someone else is offering to do the same project for free. Or you might consider the client's needs: maybe they legitimately don't have the funds to sink into a paid design project and a pro bono offer is what they can afford.

If you've been treated poorly by a client who accepted your efforts on a pro bono basis, you might consider if a lack of a contract, a propensity towards “project creep”, or a failure for you to insist on being treated as a professional may have had something to do with the experience. In far more cases, the individual designers are being hurt by insisting that designers offer “spec” work without any guarantees of recompense. And non-profits and charities are suffering by being forced to use poorly designed or obsolete Web sites to represent themselves online instead of having creative and talented designers offer their services on a pro bono basis. I think that in most cases, the argument that pro bono designs hurt the design community is a straw man advanced as an excuse for designers and design firms to shy away from pro bono work. There's no shame in not doing pro bono work, but I think it's lame for those who prefer not to do such work to create vaporous excuses that shift the “blame” for not doing pro bono work onto those who are willing to do it.

There are a number of reasons to do pro bono work: extending your skills, filling your portfolio, making new business and community contacts, and promoting yourself are some of the ones we've discussed. However, the overriding reason is much more fundamental: you do it because you want to help someone, and this is one way you can help. Do it in a way that protects your interests and preserves your professionalism, by all means, but do it!