Benefits & Challenges of Pro Bono Work

April 23, 2012
Benefits and challenges of pro bono work

Depending on your industry, you may at one time or another be asked to do some pro bono (“for the good”) work. These can be opportunities to help both the customer and yourself, but present unique challenges that need to be understood before diving in.

Note: For purposes of this blog post, I’m referring to pro bono work done for non-profit or charitable organizations — not for companies that can afford to pay but don’t think they should have to. That’s a different can of worms.

Benefits

Lending a hand

Whether you’re designing a new website, helping someone file for 501(c)3 status, or providing any other service, there’s a great deal of joy that comes with helping someone else. Non-profits, especially local ones, often start out with so few resources that any help you provide pushes them forward by leaps and bounds.

By doing pro bono work for an organization that couldn’t afford it otherwise, you help increase their reach and hopefully the amount of good they can do for others.

Give to get

It’s selfish but true: if you help someone now, they’re more likely to return the favor later. Helping an organization in need can result in business references, positive word of mouth from the organization, or in payment at a later date once that business has grown.

Similarly, prospective clients or customers will see that you are passionate about what you do, are willing to help others, and still create a valuable product or service even if there’s not much in it for you.

Learn by doing

Working pro bono is a great way to learn:

  • How non-profit or charitable organizations function from a business perspective.
  • What different organizations’ audiences need — war veterans, for example, have an easier time using websites with graphical navigation and calm colors.
  • Whether working with these types of organizations full-time is something you would enjoy.

Challenges

Unfulfilled promises

Any of this sound familiar?

  • “We’ll put a link to your website on ours.”
  • “We’ll recommend you to everyone.”
  • “We’ll pay you back once we get our grant.”

It doesn’t take much asking around to find people who have heard such promises from organizations for whom they worked for free; what’s harder to find are people who have seen follow-through on those promises.

Often this is a result of a lack of the organization’s ability — they really might not ever be able to pay you back, or the references they give aren’t the right match for your company.

This problem can, unfortunately, come from either way. Depending on a company’s culture and workload, some may equate bro bono work with being able to slack off; the final product may be less than what was promised, and everyone comes away dissatisfied.

Scope creep

It’s easy to fall into this trap when doing pro bono work. A small non-profit comes to you for help with copywriting, and somehow you end up helping them organize and promote an event — and you get paid for neither.

Smoothing the process

If you decide to do some pro bono work, there are a couple things you can do to help ensure a positive experience for everyone involved.

Follow your passion

If you’re asked to do pro bono work, or are choosing between two organizations with whom to partner, go with your gut. Is the organization and its mission something about which you can be passionate? Working for free is less frustrating if you enjoy what you’re doing, and your final result will showcase that passion.

Put it in writing

Work together to create a contract or statement of work that includes each party’s responsibilities and a set completion date for all work.

Even if no money is exchanging hands, the process of putting down the project’s elements and any “payment” (i.e., they’ll recommend you to five businesses this year) gives all parties a frame of reference and can provide the gentle pressure needed to make sure everyone does what they say they will, when they say they will.

Get to give

Ask for a small fee for one aspect of the work you’re doing. This can cover at least a little of your time, and vets the organization who wants to work with you — if they’re not willing to pay a little in exchange for a lot, it could be a red flag that you shouldn’t work together.

What’s your experience with pro bono work? Leave your thoughts and additions to this list in the comments.

[Image: Valerie Everett]