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

Invisible necktie? What’s an invisible necktie? The invisible necktie separates you from the crowd of speculative designers, designers just having fun, and pimply teens wielding a copy of Photoshop Elements with a song in their heart. The invisible necktie is the professional attitude that takes you from the corner of your dorm room or attic-corner flat, to a steel-and-glass office space with a window. Or, if you prefer, a flat overlooking the Thames.

The Invisible necktie is a mindset and a process. A professional process. And it’s doubly important with a pro bono client.

Many designers tend to approach their process only from the design point-of-view - sketch out some roughs, whip up a comp, do the production and “bill ‘em, Dan-O”. They may have even been taught this method in school. But, truth be told, it’s a bit myopic. The business part is being separated from the design part, when, in reality, they’re both part of the project. Also in that mix is how you work with other professionals. Quoted from Neil Tortorella’s Power of the Process

Okay, I’ve meandered long enough on the importance of the invisible necktie. Let’s find out how to tie one on.

Arrange an initial meeting: You gathered a good chunk of info from your initial research; now it’s time to get the inside scoop. Set aside anywhere between thirty minutes to an hour to meet with your pro bono client. In the initial meeting you’ll clarify information about the client’s background, what they’re trying to accomplish, the scope of their project and their overall goals. Use this time to gather additional information about their current audience and the audiences they’d like to capture, the names of their competition, any and all available resources, budgeting and timetable for completion.

BoDo has a list of project worksheets available here, and you can also find good resources at Creative Latitude and Creative Business.

It is at this initial meeting that you should discuss how (and how often) you plan to communicate with your clients. This is a chance for you to set your comfort levels and take control over your own accessibility. That’s right, at the first meeting. Often, in a feel good situation such as a pro bono, your first impulse is to hand over your telephone number and say “Call me when you need me!” Seriously, take a step back and ask yourself if you want your clients to call you at 6 a.m., noon, 5 p.m., 8 p.m. and midnight just because they wanted to add one more thing.

Ever hear of the phrase “familiarity breeds contempt?” If you make yourself constantly available, your pro bono client will mistake you for a tool instead of a craftsperson. Suddenly, that questionnaire you introduced doesn’t need to be filled out, because they can get it to you tomorrow. That vital information for the website? It can wait…you’re gonna be there tomorrow – right? Don’t make this error, or you’ll be chasing and wasting your own precious time. Budgeting your availability makes you a more valuable resource, and it reinforces the importance of deadlines for required materials. Here’s a sample layout that has worked for me:

  • Three in-person meetings.
  • One scheduled phone call per week (maybe two, depending on the scope of the project.
  • A weekly email update to confirm your progress, and
  • availability via email with a guaranteed response of some kind, perhaps even saying “You’ll always hear something back from me by the next working day.”

2. Conducting preliminary competitive and audience research for the proposal. This is the hardest part for newly minted creatives. Sometimes you just want to strap on your helmet and make a rush for the finish line, ideas flying from your head. Once again, you need to take some time and find out who your client is. This is also a chance to educate your client on the value of preliminary research gathering. Whip up a questionnaire that’s not too long, not too short, and then ask your client to fill it out to the best of their abilities. Sample questions might include the following:

  • What is the current attitude towards your existing website/logo/promotional materials from the outside world?
  • What do your employees think of your materials? Not just the administrators and managers, but all levels of employees.
  • Name some of your favorite creative websites/promo ideas and provide samples or web addresses.
  • What do you want to keep the same or have to keep the same?

Again, check out the forms on http://www.businessofdesignonline.com/downloads-forms/, Creative Latitude and Creative Business for ideas.

While you’re waiting for them to return the questionnaire, you should fill out one of your own. Look around at similar organizations that appeal to you and to others. Do footwork and gather materials of your own.

3. Find out who your team is. If you’re lucky, you won’t be alone in this project. Most not for profit organizations have marketing or public relations people who like nothing more than to help. They’re usually the same people who wait years for the higher-ups to approve changes to their existing logos, written materials or websites. Seek them out and become their compatriots in this endeavor. It will help you tremendously in the long run.

If your client doesn’t have a team formed, explain to your contact that even though the project is not yet underway, the formation of a team is vital to gathering information needed to create an informed proposal. Here’s the list:

Team Leader: Responsible for gathering answers to the questionnaires, serves as a first point of contact for all questions about the overall project. The best team leader is someone you can call on, when the project needs a kick in the pants.

Technical Support: If you’re designing a website, you want a well-informed IT member willing to sit in and outline the capabilities of the organization. The best IT person is someone who can translate tech speak for all those involved.

Quality Control: Usually a PR or marketing person that makes sure the information you’re receiving is accurate and in tune with the needs of the organization. The best person here is someone willing to review everything before it gets to you, not after you’ve printed it.

Budget and Finance: This is usually a silent teammate, but make sure someone is available to provide a clear and constant reminder that money is not infinite. Nothing’s worse than having a team leader ask you for a 30-foot billboard only to find out they can only afford a homeless guy with a cardboard sign.

Your side of the table is a lot more fluid. That’s a very pretty way of saying that you may end up being the only person there. But if you’re fortunate and your nonprofit client has the resources, you should prepare and submit requests for quotes from project associates such as photographers, writers, printers, that are willing to get involved. If you’re lucky enough to have a team ready to help out, it will bolster your client’s confidence in the project as well as create a network of people that will benefit from your involvement. Suddenly your friend the photographer has equal access to the publicity and potential clients, and they’ll return the favor one day.

4. Preparing your proposal and agreement: By this time you should have your questionnaires from your client, your own research and your invisible tie ready to go. Sit down and draft out your plan for the project. Proposals should be like a lady’s skirt; long enough to cover the important bits and short enough to garner some interest. Don’t use the words ‘revolutionize,’ ‘maximize,’ ‘energize,’ ‘revitalize’ or any words that end in -ize. Don’t talk down about the existing materials…chances are somebody in the room approved all that information once upon a time. Be brief and clear. If you’re designing a new logo, don’t “seek to maximize the potential of the client by pioneering a new identity to propel their goods and services into the future.” Try saying something like “Create an identity that is in tune with the new goals of the organization.” Create a timetable that works for you as well as your client, with enough wiggle room to either save you when the project drags or make you look like a hero for getting the project done early.

When you’re done, check with your potential client to make sure you’ve got all the necessary information and that you’re on the right track, then make a dozen copies, stuff’em in your briefcase with the rest of your research and go to step 5.

5. Arrange for your proposal presentation meeting. By this time, you should have your questionnaires gathered. Call up your point of contact or team leader and say. “I’m ready for the proposal presentation. When can you see me?” And you know what the best thing is? You will be. So cinch up that invisible necktie and walk through the front doors. Make your presentation. Once again, remember our lady’s skirt analogy; don’t bog them down in tech-speak. Bring samples but don’t explode your research all over the table. Outline what you’ve discovered and recap what your client has given you. Allow time for questions and answer them as well as you can.

Quick tip: If you don’t have an answer during this meeting, don’t lie. Example: a company I worked for hosted two proposals for a project. The first contractor’s reply to any question he didn’t have an answer for was “We can do that.” Imagine our surprise when “we can do that,” actually meant “We can do that, but we’ll charge you twice as much and it may not actually work.” The second contractor was a little less flashy, a little more cautious, and unafraid of saying “I don’t have a ready answer for that, but I can find you one.” That honesty that won him the contract.

After you finish this meeting, don’t be afraid if you don’t hear an answer right away. All projects are risky, and your client will want a chance to hear feedback from their team without you. Shake hands, say thank you, ask when you might expect a response, then head home and recap what worked, what didn’t and what was unexpected. Get answers to those questions that you didn’t expect and send them on to your contact person with a thank you note (by email or in print is best - that way the information can be shared.)

At this point, you’ll be surprised to know that your work is done. You have done just as much work and put forth just as much effort as any marketing/branding/advertising/design firm in the world on any project. If they pass on your offer, you’ve lost nothing but fifty sheets of paper and a little gas money. You can ask them to provide some feedback on why the project wasn’t picked up, but don’t press the issue; you’ve already gained immense knowledge in how to create a proposal. In the end, you are your own best judge. Pick up your newfound skills and find another pro bono project.

But if you DO get the call saying “we’d like to start immediately,” then you’re in for an equally wild ride. Strap yourself in and go to step 6, which is…

6. Sign your contract. Wait a minute…you don’t have a contract? Well…well, I never… *sigh* Now I’m going to have to write a whole column about why you need a contract for pro bono work…you better be lucky that I like y’all as much as I do. Stay tuned for the epic story of The Camel in the Tent: or Why You Need a Contract for 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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