To Pro Bono or Not To Pro Bono
There are times when, as creative professionals, we are approached by someone or an organization to donate our services and do a pro bono project. If this hasn't happened to you yet, it will. When to (or not to) agree with these pro bono requests can sometimes be very challenging and cause us to ponder and have a way to get those dollar signs out of our eyes.
Pro bono literally means for the "public good", or doing a task or project for the betterment of the public. This usually is referring to the legal profession. But, any service entity can be asked to do pro bono work and may have this as part of their overall business and marketing plan.
I have worked on many pro bono projects in the course of my design experience. Early on, these projects were mainly for portfolio-building and basically needed to get some "meat" in there. Now, there are occasions when a non-profit or social or political cause requests some work done that is not going to be paid for.
Before agreeing or denying to do the job, I weigh-in on the organization, my feelings around the particular cause or messaging involved, and if this project fits in with the timeline of current and upcoming projects for which I am being compensated. I will not work on something that goes against my own morals or values, no matter if it's a paid gig or not. If the evaluation process comes back in the affirmative, I go for it. It's always great to have pro bono work for the portfolio and in the resume all the time. Depending on the organization, you may get a tax write-off for the fees associated with the project and usually you get credited within the piece itself. If those two points are not mentioned from the client in the negotiation process, please ask for them.
I just completed a pro bono project for a silent film festival entry in which the client desired a brochure which explained their recent salvage and restoration of a classic silent film. I'm all for preservation of the arts and this time of year usually is a slower time for me, so I jumped at the chance.
There are also organizations which only serve non-profit entities in the provision of services on a pro bono basis. One organization for which I am working on an annual report project for a neighborhood senior center right now is the Taproot Foundation. Taproot places teams of professionals from the areas of creative, marketing, management, financial, etc. together and matches them up with a non-profit which has applied for a grant. Usually the projects involve branding, collateral, web site, or an annual report. It's been a great experience for me so far. Not only do we provide a needed service to a valuable and worthy cause, we get to interact and work with others in very different professions with which we normally wouldn't. In my view, it's an invaluable experience and an investment in professional and personal development.
Sometimes a request for a pro bono project can come at the worst possible time or from someone with which you wouldn't work with no matter what the rewards could be. That's OK and it's OK to say NO in a professional and gracious manner. If a referral can be made to a colleague or someone who may benefit from this particular project, that is always a nice gesture and you will come off in a better light overall. One word of caution - make sure the recipient of your referral wants it. We can't be friends with everyone, but there's no need to make enemies in the community by dumping a horrible project on someone. Social graces and etiquette will have to be the topic of another entry.
All in all, pro bono is good and can be good for your portfolio and career. Practice caution and go with your gut. After all, gut reactions usually tell us the correct answers in all sorts of situations - so, listen to it.