Posted by: Thomas Stephan
Category: Working Pro-bono
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Thomas (Tom) Stephan

A member shall not work for a client or employer without compensation, with the exception of the occasional pro bono work for charitable purposes or for work performed for family members.

Quoted from “A Graphic Designer’s Guide to Pro Bono Work” by The Association of Registered Graphic Designers of Ontario.

A volunteer rebuilds houses after a hurricane; a volunteer brings food to the invalid and housebound; a volunteer shelves books at a public library. All these people are working for free. What are they getting out of these experiences? The answers are as varied as the opportunities. Maybe we step forward to help our community. Maybe we feed the sick because either our family or ourselves were once in the same dire need. For some people it’s about serving a spiritual component of our lives. Whatever the reason, there is something gained on both sides. People have a home, a meal, a chance to learn something new, and we in return gain a free lunch or two, pad our college applications, have a moment of heart-filling ease that we have done something for our fellow man. This is volunteerism, and it’s a great thing.

But it’s not pro bono work.

Let me give you a minute to let that soak in. Ready? Good, let’s go on: pro bono, as defined by a quick trip across the Internet, is short for pro bono publico, a Latin phrase meaning “for the good of the public” or “for the good of the people.” In the United States it’s a favorite phrase of lawyers, who are often encouraged by the legal associations they belong to to perform a minimum of free legal work for those clients who either cannot afford legal services or for non-profit entities.

My first posting was called “The Subtle Art of Working for Free”. While it is tempting to see the title as a pithy catch-all or catchphrase, nothing could be further from the truth. There is, in fact, artistry in working for free. And therein lies in the difference between volunteerism and pro bono work. Confused? You shouldn’t be. Read on!

Here’s an example of classic volunteerism: You’ve got a few years of school under your belt, or maybe you’ve got a few years of working out there as some production-line designer, fixing those hideous Microsoft Word and free clipart T-shirts that somebody visited on you like a biblical plague. You’re at a point where working for yourself seems like a good way to go and somebody says “Our Church Youth Group needs a logo. You know, something catchy, something to impress the kids.”

Your heart leaps at the chance; after all, this is how you get your work out in the public, right? So you design and draw and erase and print and vectorize and show it and get the seven deadly sins of design from the owner: Apathy, Logo Enlargement, Impossible Detail, Poor Feedback, Napkin Sketches, Just-Copy-This-Idea and Death. Maybe not death. Nope. I’ll stay with death. In the end the logo shows up on the church flyers and you get a lot of people saying “Father Bob said you did that for free. Can I get something for free?”

This is volunteerism. The only thing you can really hope to get out of volunteering is a warm fuzzy feeling. And an ulcer.

I can tell you’re depressed. Take a minute, go get a drink of water and look up. Things are about to get better.

If you’ve made it this far, you’re probably saying “If only there were a way that creatives could market themselves, educate themselves and promote themselves in one package plan.” And guess what? There is. And now let me show you the bright shiny idea that is pro bono work.

Here’s an example of the Pro Bono experience: Your local church needs a logo for their youth group. “Something catchy, something to impress the kids,” is your direction. You say “Great!” Only this time, instead of going home and pounding out that logo, you go home and write up a contract for goods and services. This contract outlines exactly what you’re doing, how you’re going to do it, and a rough estimate of how much time and effort it’s going to take. You take that back and say “I am serious about creating an identity for you that will last longer than summer camp. Let me sit down with the teachers, a few of the kids, the church arm and talk about your needs.” After you get that contract signed, you launch into research, outlining the needs of the group and the needs of the community. You interview and process and come up with well-informed designs that will match the budget of this church, whether they’ve got the money for a little color or none at all. On top of that creation, you offer them a detailed bill of services that outlines the amount of money they might have spent on an identity in the creative marketplace. In the end you haven’t just handed them something you like or they like, but something they need. They walk away with a logo they helped to create, and you walk away with a new experience and an intimate understanding of the community you’ve served.

THAT is pro bono. That is “for the good of the public.” And the people who come up to you won’t ask you for something free. They’ll say “I heard you re-branded the church youth group. I’m working on starting a new company. Can we talk?”

Established designers, and for that matter most new designers fall into two separate camps in regards to pro bono work. One camp declares their work for non-profit or public organizations to be completely selfless, i.e., done purely for the social service aspect of the deed, with no desire for any return whatsoever. The other, more common group seeks real-life portfolio additions, tax write-offs, or even the chance to beta-test their own skills. Which category do you fall under? In a few weeks we’ll be posting a survey for designers who currently undertake pro bono clientele, and I’d love to have your input to add to this series.

In the end it doesn’t matter if you’re working for a church group, a non-profit organization or some enterprising startup. If you’re willing to commit to the same set of principles of design, education and excellence that propelled you through school or on-the-job training, then you’re on the path to success. Your pro bono mantra is this: always get something back, or you’re just a volunteer.

Next time, let’s talk about the the whys - the rewards and reasons of working pro bono.


This series is dedicated to the exploration of pro bono practices: from how to find the non-profit client, understanding the expectations of not-for profit work, setting up contracts to protect both parties and the successful (and not so successful) ways to educate yourself and your client on how creatives can and should work together to the benefit of all involved. Along the way we’ll include international design experts, research and statistics, etiquette and most importantly, how to be part of the solution. Stay tuned and let your voices be heard.


Thomas (Tom) Stephan | Director of Something Clever
BoDo Author | Dyer Straits | Working Pro-bono

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Comments to this post:

Comment: Prix Dekanun says

Hi there! I’ve been reading your blog here from Brazil and I see things are not much different in this area: in this urge of getting a killer portfolio, people keep getting jobs that don’t give much back - except that ulcer. I think you draw that thin red line between what’s volunter and pro-bono work very well. In the future, I would love to know if I can link to your blog and translate that text to portuguese! I think it will be very nice. Thanks!

8th February 2008 Quote

Comment: Thomas Stephan says

Hiya Prix!

Thanks for the comment. If you’d like to translate the article, you can send me a request by clicking here and I’ll send you the submission guidelines!

8th February 2008 Quote

Comment: Ned Lawrence says

Ironically, I was just about to ask why you offer a free e-book. I’m not a designer. I’m a writer. The difficulties seem quite similar, though.

So the difference between volunteerism and pro bono: the former is just being a good Samaritan (you could paint the Church’s cafeteria for it matters), the latter is a small business owner offering his services for the recognition rather than pay. Am I right here?

9th February 2008 Quote

Comment: Ned Lawrence says

Despite the bad editting?

9th February 2008 Quote

Comment: Thomas Stephan says

Hi Ned;

Despite your editing, and the egregious use of an extra ‘t’ in the aforementioned word, the answer is yes!

Volunteering is very much like painting the church or feeding the homeless. In both cases it’s highly likely that you are neither a chef nor a professional painter. You’re offering labor because nobody else will do it.

On the other hand, if that very same church asked you to write their newsletter, you could ‘volunteer’ and scrap out a little flyer, maybe with some clipart and a wee insert of some stolen web-graphic.

But far better for you as a writer to blow the roof off the opportunity by writing to the best of your abilities, arrange for some low-cost printing and maybe helping to set up a website, too. Your extra effort feeds itself by getting you further into the community to meet more clients, finding additional resources, networking opportunities and some on-the-job training to boot.

In the end, the best advice I can give is to give it your all if you’re giving it away. How’s THAT for a crazy sentence?

9th February 2008 Quote

Comment: Ned Lawrence says

There’s a lesson in humility around here somewhere.

Thanks for the suggestions. This is a nice blog… I’m impressed.

9th February 2008 Quote

Comment: Catherine says

Thanks Ned :-)

19th February 2008 Quote

Comment: Velvet Blues says

Very interesting comparison of ‘pro bono’ and ‘volunteerism’… probably the most comprehensive guide on the net… :-)

21st November 2008 Quote

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