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

If you’re reading this series, you’ve got the desire to do some pro bono. But it’s not always immediately clear to yourself, friends or potential clients exactly why you’d undertake a professional-level job without a cash return. So, let’s explore a few reasons why you might hoist your pro bono flag high, shall we?


“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 | Profiting from Pro Bono Creative Efforts

Imagine for a moment that you have the chance to run a full page billboard ad in the middle of town trumpeting your fledgling business, or put your work on the front page of a website garnering thousands of hits a day. Guess what: you can!

Your pro bono work, executed wisely and well, will broadcast your talents and skills more efficiently than a two line ad in the back of the phone book. And in truth, may be the cheapest and most effective way to advertise both your creative expertise and your business. It’s like hoisting a page of your portfolio across the sky — what a great opportunity!

And let’s not forget the most-quoted marketing phrase out there: word of mouth sells. Provide your client with quality and professionalism and the reward is a reference that can’t be beat.


Networking in any business is recommended as one of the best ways to promote yourself. But honestly, have you actually been to one of those ‘mixers?’ It’s HIDEOUS!

There you stand in some beige rented room at the local hotel, desperate to pass out your fistful of sweaty business cards. One by one, random humans stuffed into uncomfortable suits and boring ties in various states of ennui subject you to the same awful question, “What do you do?” followed by “Oh…okay…” In the end you’ve met 100 people just as desperate as you to find valuable connections.

Why not maximize your networking by targeting your pro bono work to an audience that will help you every step of the way. Like Mike Davidson did?

“One of the first pro-bono projects I involved myself in was the Seattle Show — the annual advertising and design awards for the Seattle area…I was able to meet and work with a lot of creative directors, art directors, ad agencies, and design firms around town. It has been a great networking opportunity and it only takes up maybe 40 hours of my time every year.” | Mike Davidson | How to Make Friends and Influence Art Directors

Effective Portfolio Puffing

Everybody pads their portfolio with fake-bakes; I have a few myself, and after a few years I retired them to the back of my filing cabinet. Why? Let me give you a hot tip: an interview for a creative position is, in major part, a determination of how well you work with others. Filling your portfolio with self-generated projects might make you feel accomplished, but to the person across the hiring desk is saying “I wish I could hire them, but I have no idea how they’ll react to criticism or real-life scenarios.

Pro bono work fills your portfolio with real-life problem solving situations and, as a bonus, gives you the upper hand over a waiting room chock full of people wielding finely crafted portfolios full of air.

“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.” | Jeffrey Veen | The Do-It-Yourself Portfolio

Experience Gathering

Pro bono work as a means of gaining practical experience goes without saying, but what ices the cake is the chance to push the envelope. Paying clients will often dictate your creative process; pro bono clients are considerably more flexible.

“The reward for pro-bono work is not always just in heaven. Pro-bono designs do not have to undergo the rigors of marketing and research. And pro-bono jobs are generally more interesting and challenging than run-of-the-mill business assignments which are often driven by time-worn traditions and prejudices.” | Paul Rand | Pro-bono or No-bono

“The donation of my services has also led to greater creative freedom in many cases. The individuals involved in the projects are often very willing to admit the creative aspects of such an effort are not within their area of expertise. They are pleased to give creative individuals free rein to produce the best result - and often the work I consider my personal best.” | Jeff Fisher | Profiting from Pro Bono Creative Efforts

The Warm and Fuzzies

And finally, a well chosen pro bono project will make you feel good. Don’t take a pro bono job for any other reason. Don’t justify working for an organization you don’t agree with. Do bring your heart with you. Because when you sit at a hiring table, you’ll be able to say “I was committed to making a difference and really representing the voice of this project.” That sheer honesty will open more doors than anything else.

“Working pro bono was an excellent way to market my business while giving back at the same time. For instance, I designed around ten posters a year for the Brunei Music Society. Each poster had a credit line promoting my company. With creative freedom, one of the posters won first place in the American Design Awards and ended up in Jeff Fisher’s The Savvy Designer” | Catherine Morley | The Savvy Designer’s Guide to Success: Ideas and Tactics for a Killer Career

“It can be a refreshing, fun, enlightening change …” | Jayne Cravens | Pro Bono / In-Kind / Donated Services for Mission-Based Organizations

“Pssst … there’s another reason for producing pro-bono work…especially on campus. It generates a warm pink and fuzzy vibe about your cooperative, caring and giving spirit - a vibe that will pay dividends over the years in the deliberations regarding promotion, tenure and annual pay increases. Uh. On the other hand, never mind. That’s too commercial. I do the pro-bono stuff because I’m… a sweetheart!” | Lanny Sommese | Beyond Commerce on Campus and Beyond

There are so many reasons and so many positive rewards. What will yours be?

Next time: Just Like Melons: Identifying your pro bono client.

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: Free Business Cards says

Working pro-bono is where I got my first client. I finished a website design for a local church and told them that if their members needed a website that I would do it at a discounted rate. 4 days later I had my first paying client!

20th February 2008 Quote

Comment: Yang-May Ooi says

Hi Thomas, you make some excellent points - and they sum up the reasons that my consultancy are working pro-brono on the online “magazine” Dulwich OnView for the Friends of the Dulwich Picture Gallery in South London (UK) - The benefits you describe apply across all industries, whether online or in the real world.

21st February 2008 Quote

Comment: Thomas Stephan says

Hi, Yang-May Ooi!

It’s nice to see that you’re maximizing the online benefits of pro bono work.

The virtual business model has just as much to benefit from pro bono as any brick-and-mortar institution, and online promotional work is a low-cost avenue for up-and-coming creatives who often start out in a corner of their bedroom.

21st February 2008 Quote

Comment: Thomas Stephan says

Hello, Free Business Cards and thanks for the testimony! Most people’s first clients are pro bono; it’s making sure that your second one is paying for your newly acquired skills - hehe.

21st February 2008 Quote

Comment: Emily Tormey says

Thanks for the interest in my blog post about this - I responded to your comment on that post, but I also wanted to say something here. I really agree that setting clear guidelines for pro bono work with contracts protects BOTH parties from mistakes down the road due to miscommunication of project goals or parameters. You’re absolutely right; with pro bono work I think it would be tempting to let the paperwork slide and just focus on the fun stuff - the actual designing. But in the end, it can be harmful. Thanks for the great advice Tom!


21st February 2008 Quote

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