Designing pro bono projects for "win-win" results

It can happen to almost any "creative type" on a daily or weekly basis. When you least expect it you are asked to produce a project for a nonprofit client - for free! Your response to the request may depend on a variety of issues. Often you will react emotionally with an immediate "out of the goodness of your heart" positive answer. However, when it comes right down to the nitty-gritty, the decision may be based on the age-old question: "What's in it for me?" Rather than being posed as a selfish self-query, the question is a matter of determining if one has the time (and energy) to take on such efforts - and a review of how pro bono projects can benefit both parties.

Given that you have the time and desire to assist a nonprofit in their marketing and promotion efforts, you need to establish the personal value and rewards of doing such work. I have determined that to do my best work for such a group I require a passion for their cause. With the large number of requests I received for pro bono work I also realized I needed to create some personal guidelines in regards to donated time. I now only consider donating my services if the project is related to education, smaller nonprofit performing arts groups, children's causes, or specific issues in which I have a strong personal interest. For example, I have designed graphics for AIDS organizations and events since 1985. I will also only take on a limited number of pro bono projects in any one calendar year.

Unfortunately, our friends at the Internal Revenue Service don't see a great deal of value in the gifting of time, talent or services. The Internal Revenue Service states: "Contributions you cannot deduct at all include the value of your time or services. Although you cannot deduct the value of your time or services, you can deduct the expenses you incur while donating your services to a qualified organization.

Even so, there are tremendous profits and benefits (above and beyond those warm, fuzzy feelings) in donating your services to nonprofit organizations.

Taking (or getting) credit for your efforts
Doing creative work for a local nonprofit organization can be a great way to promote your talents and abilities. For the student or newbie designer, doing pro bono work may be a great way to beef up a portfolio with some "real world" design work. I actually look at such projects as part of the marketing plan for my business.

When a nonprofit asks you to donate services, don't be shy about asking for credit in return for your efforts. This may simply be a credit line on a photograph or graphic; or a byline on an article you have written. It may be in the form of an acknowledgement in the program for an event or a mention in the group's newsletter. You may want to receive a verbal "thank you" from the organization at one of their public gatherings or dinners.

If the nonprofit has a membership directory, newsletter or event program, an appropriate expression of their appreciation might be a print ad in the publication. A link from the client's web page to your own can be a very profitable gesture. If the organization is of personal interest a complimentary membership, or admission to an event, is often a welcome gift.

Completing a donated project for a nonprofit organization is the perfect opportunity to "toot my own horn" and send out one of my "Toot! Toot!" press releases. Many local publications, or those related to the purpose of the nonprofit industry involved, will be pleased to print the information. The resulting publicity is positive exposure for your business and the organization.

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. Over one third of the international, national and regional design awards I have received have been for the projects of nonprofit groups. Many of these projects have been published in design annuals or graphic design books. Each award has given me even more reason to promote myself through press releases.

Making friends and meeting influential people
One of the major benefits of doing pro bono work is the people with whom you come in contact during the course of the projects. Many of these people may become strong advocates and allies for your business efforts.

The staff of a nonprofit organization is the best source of word-of-mouth promotion following a successful project. Over the years I have developed long-term business relationships with individuals who have moved from one nonprofit to another throughout the course of their career. With each move comes the potential for a renewed client relationship.

Most groups will have a Board of Directors, made up of civic-minded business people, who may also have a need for your services. These same Board members also travel in a variety of business and social circles. I have been hired for projects because my name came up in a conversation an individual had with a Board member of a client organization - in some situation totally unrelated to my client. On several occasions I have been contacted directly by Board members to produce projects for their own business ventures.

Having participated in the design of materials for fundraising activities my work will get a great deal of exposure to those attending the event du jour. Numerous clients have commissioned me to design projects for their business after attending fundraising events and seeing examples of my work.

The prospect of future work from the client
Often the donating of services to a nonprofit client will lead to paid work at a later date. When contributing my services to any group I always make them aware of the fact they will qualify for a 20% discount off the estimated cost of any future contracted projects. One year I donated my services to design the logo for the summer school program of a local elementary school. Later the PTA of the school hired me to create the image for the school itself. For over 16 years I have executed pro bono work for a local nonprofit theater company. One year the group received a grant to cover the costs of my work in producing their marketing materials. A local AIDS residential care facility was the beneficiary of my design skills for several years during the 1990's. They then took it upon themselves to get funding for a monthly stipend to cover my services. Each year the stipend was reviewed, and increased, as the financial situation of the organization improved. Just today I completed the design of their redesigned identity for a new facility opening this next week.

Is a simple "thank you" too much to ask?
Having executed pro bono work for over 30 years I have learned that you must often make the recipient aware of the value of your work. I have repeatedly run into situations when nonprofit clients have no appreciation for donated services. Getting something for "free" occasionally translates into a perception that your work has no value.

First of all, I suggest having the client sign a contract or project agreement to outline all aspects of the project. Even if they are not paying for your services the project should be treated as a "real" job to avoid potential misunderstandings or miscommunication. I also have created a "project value sheet" to present to pro bono clients upon completion of their project. Basically it is an invoice-like form, showing the value of the time spent on the project at my billable rates for each task involved. Of course, there is no balance due. However, conveying this information to the clients has resulted in a greater appreciation of my work.

Still, I am stunned by the number of nonprofits who approach a creative individual with a request for donated services and don't make the slightest effort to express appreciation when the project is complete. All I expect is a simple "thank you," whether it is a handwritten note, in person, via a phone call or by email. The fact my work is appreciated will go a long way toward establishing a long-term client relationship and the possibility of additional pro bono efforts in the future. I've been surprised at the number of nonprofits who, after no sign of appreciation at all for previous donated work, will ask me to donate my services again. Not only will I not work with them again; I let them know precisely the reason I've made the decision.

A win-win situation
Conducted with professionalism and respect the relationship between a writer, photographer, graphic designer or other creative, and a nonprofit needing the services of such an individual, can result in a beneficial situation for both parties. The organization can obtain quality creative work not otherwise affordable, and establish a positive relationship with a talented individual. The "creative type" can feel good about assisting the nonprofit group in the marketing or promotion efforts, create a new audience for their work and promote their own business in the process.

This article appeared in its original form on in April 2001 and in part in my book, "The Savvy Designer's Guide to Success"

© 2006 Jeff Fisher LogoMotives

1 comment:

HD_Wanderer said...

the project should be treated as a "real" job to avoid potential misunderstandings or miscommunication.

Nicely put, I'll have to do that in the future. I do pro bono work occasionally. You get to do some interesting work that way sometimes.