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

On any given day there are a ten thousand websites floating the latest, greatest way to identify a new client, market yourself successfully, or get ahead of competitors, regardless of your business of choice. Half those sites are focused on the small business owner. Some articles recommend marketing to a certain age group, or industry, or zodiac sign.

However you choose to conduct your business, one thing remains constant: seek out clients that will pay you for your work. Pro bono situations adhere to this rule as well. Yes, you’re not getting cash, but you are getting something (remember our mantra: always get something back?) in return.

Here’s a quick and dirty list of businesses and organizations that often ask for pro bono work:

  • Religious Organizations (Some churches have social service arms that serve thousands or even millions of people)
  • Churches (There are many definitions of a church. Some are better picks than others for pro bono work)
  • Social Service Agencies (This is an umbrella term; once again, choose wisely)
  • Foster Care Agencies (non-state funded)
  • Adoption Agencies (that are not state-funded)
  • Community Projects (Initiatives to build a neighborhood park or garden area)
  • Community Theatres/Playhouses
  • Public School Projects (United States educational systems are often woefully underfunded in the promotional areas. I’d love to know how it’s handled in other countries)
  • After-School Programs (subsidized or unsubsidized)
  • Shelters for Children/Adults/Animals

The list is not endless, but it is varied. I’d love to hear other people’s pro bono lists; I’m sure I left quite a few off. And your initial choice may be wholly dependent on your personal experience. Perhaps you’re a lucky adoptive parent, or someone whose faith and spirituality includes service to your church or community. Maybe your daughter or son is playing third spear-carrier from the left at the little theatre down the road, and they’re in need of a poster or a media release. When in doubt, remember that you’re more likely to do good work when it’s something you’re passionate about.

What Pro bono clients are not.

New Businesses are not pro bono clients: I can’t stress this enough. Looking through the latest information from the Small Business Administration (SBA) you can see that 33 percent of new employer establishments survive less than two years, while 56 percent survive less than four. Contrast these numbers with, say, your local Buddhist temple, part of an organization which managed to survive those first rough years in 500 BC and has since enjoyed 2,500 years of success, with 350 million clients worldwide. Whereas, if a small business owner is actively courting pro bono work, then they’re already operating on a very poor business model.

Similarly, competitions are not pro bono work. Any competition requiring the creation of new work for little or no reward should raise the red flag right away. Reputable design competitions are easy to spot because they focus on the submission of previous work. Examples include: American Inhouse Design Awards, European Design Awards, PRINT’s Regional Design Annual 2008, HOW Competitions and a new one, Logo Design Love Awards by David Airey (thanks Jeff!). Ethical competitions are incredibly fun, but they are not pro bono.

Finally, and most darkly, there is the murky world of speculative design. When we’re in the presence of our mom, we call it ’spec work,’ and when we’re amongst other designers we call it a host of nasty names. In a nutshell, spec work is the anti-pro bono; it’s where somebody decides that they’re going to hold a contest to see who can make the best logo for their business, with the compensation of…nothing, or even worse a free T-shirt with your logo on it. It’s like winning a cake that you baked because it was so darned pretty. If you see a business or non-profit holding a spec contest, here’s a tip: Make a logo, print it out, iron it onto a shirt and wear it around town. That way, you’ve already won.

What makes a good pro bono client?

There are a lot of places that could benefit from pro bono work. One of the easiest ways is to check out their website. An organization with a well-designed website chock full of excellent images, good text and a regularly updated information set is probably not your target, as they’ve got a working system in place. An organization with a hideous, poorly laid out design, misspelled text, stolen graphics and pop up windows might garner sympathy votes, but be wary; the condition of a website might be indicative of the entire organization.*

An organization without a website, or one with a well-intentioned MySpace page or blog is often a good prospect, as it shows desire if not technical proficiency. Visit their offices, request promotional materials, look at their public profile via newspapers or public service announcements. Talk to people about their experiences with various groups. Don’t fall into the trap of the pity-job that comes from groups that operate in the fringe of bankruptcy or have management nightmares. Any organization that can’t afford to make payroll is not a good prospect. A good pro bono prospect has organizational skills, good management and a dedication to good work like any for-profit organization. Charity, like volunteerism, is nice, but it’s not what you’re doing here.

After you’ve checked their web presence and any previous efforts in the creative field, you should determine if your potential pro bono client is receptive to assistance. Some organizations, especially larger ones, have very specific rules and regulations about their promotional efforts, including redesign or rebranding. Others have no pre-set rules and could benefit from them greatly. Your best bet is to start with their public relations person, marketing head or spokesperson. Some groups, especially churches or small non-profits, may not have a dedicated position in regards to marketing. In that case, it’s best to start at the top with the public face of the organization.

Send a letter stating your interest in their organization and a desire to help with pro bono work. Add your background, your resume and experience. Emphasize that you’re looking for experience and public service to your community. Show them samples of your work. Tell them you’ll be calling soon, and then call them up. Set up a meeting with them and bring your portfolio. Interview them just as much as they interview you; remember…you’re investing in this situation. Find out how much money they can put into this project. A website redesign is useless if they can’t afford to maintain it. Writing promotional copy is equally useless if they can’t cover the copy paper. Perhaps they’ll say yes or ask you for more information. Perhaps they’ll say no and take your card for another time. If you don’t land that first gig, then you’ve had a fabulous lesson in how to interview. Smooth out your interview suit and look for another opportunity.

If this sounds like a lot of work, it is! But it’s the same exact kind of trench-digging you’ll do when you’re looking for paid work. If you can aggressively pin down a free client, then a paid one should be no problem at all. Also, trust your own good instincts. A good pro bono client is like a melon. They shouldn’t be too hard-shelled and inflexible, nor should they be so mushy as to agree to everything you say. You should be able to smell the opportunity, and it should be sweet.

As this has been a long post, let’s rehash the important points:

  • Seek out: pro bono clients offering a return
  • Choose: a pro bono with similar passions as your own
  • Pro bono prospects are not: new businesses, spec work or competitions
  • Pro bono prospects are: non-profits (Religious Organizations, Churches, Social Service Agencies …)
  • A spit polished non-profit: is a sure sign of being under the wing of a dedicated designer
  • A poorly run non-profit: might be more than you bargained for, both in time and frustration
  • A well run non-profit: has good organizational skills, trained management in place, and a dedication to good work
  • Making contact with a non-profit: start with their public relations, marketing head or spokesperson, or the public face of the organization
  • And lastly: treat a non-profit just as a for-profit - share your background, your resume and portfolio, set up a meeting to discover if there’s a fit.

Next up is a doozie of a list - Lead From Your Heart: Where to Find Pro-bono Work

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: David Airey says

…if a small business owner is actively courting pro bono work, then they’re already operating on a very poor business model.

Very well put, Tom.

Thanks for the kind mention of my new logo design awards competition. I’ve launched it in order to give some credit to lesser-known graphic designers, so here’s hoping it’s a success.

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Comment: Thomas Stephan says

Thanks David, and good luck on the design awards! Hopefully you’ll get some traffic from my ramblings!

28th February 2008 Quote

Comment: Jess Sand says

Hey Tom, this is a great no-nonsense post. I think both nonprofits AND designers lose out when we start working on spec, entering spec competitions, and donating work to commercial enterprises.

Another important point to remember is that the IRS defines pro bono work as work donated to very specific organizations (see ).

28th February 2008 Quote

Comment: Erin Harris says

Tom, just in case I don’t tell you enough how awesome you are, really, you are. This is very well-written and you’ve outlined some very simple (but important) criteria that any designer should be able to follow.

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Comment: Thomas Stephan says

Thanks Jess! And you’re very right that there’s a narrow legal definition of what the IRS calls pro bono. I’ll keep that in mind as the series progresses, and let everyone know what I’ve learned!

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Comment: Thomas Stephan says

Aw, shucks, Erin! You flatter me. With any hope, this series will be a valuable cookbook for people who want to use pro bono to flavor their careers!

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Comment: Neil says

Excellent post, Tom! You’ve hit the nail on the head and gave some sage and sound advise to our readers. Thanks for your hard work. It’s appreciated.

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Comment: Catherine says


I love the point you made:

“remember our mantra: always get something back?”

Whether it’s monetary, a real portfolio or real time experience, something must come back. Always.

Or we’ll soon find out that we have nothing to give back.

Cheesy. I know! And I love it :-)

29th February 2008 Quote

Comment: Conor says

Great post Tom! It actually hits on something that’s very close to home (and stuff we’ve been thinking of at Hands-on for some new marketing angles). I’ve never liked ProBono, Free Work or “donation” work to an organization that is not a charity and nothing in return. You hit the nail on the head with this article! Nice work!

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Comment: Alina says


I just discovered this pro bono site that seems like a great resource (and is legitimate!)


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Comment: Thomas Stephan says

Thanks, Neil! I enjoyed your latest book review, too. While I like to write in general, isn’t it nice to write things that help people? I’m getting more and more excited about this series as I continue on!

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Comment: Thomas Stephan says

Hi Alina!

Thanks for the link. I’m going to add Taproot to my list of sites on an upcoming post, so I appreciate it greatly!

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Comment: Thomas Stephan says

Thanks Conor! I’d be interested in knowing how a business like hands-on might undertake pro bono work. Even offering free hosting for a site is such a major contribution. You might even pair with a pro bono oriented designer and ensure a quality site for a non-profit in need. So many opportunities!

4th March 2008 Quote

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