Pro bono work

By Creative Business

When does it make sense?

Giving something back to the community in which your business operates is a venerable tradition. Among creative businesses this commonly takes the form of occasionally providing pro bono, or free, services to one or more worthy causes. Yet, as noble as the sentiment that lies behind this tradition is, there are always more worthy causes than the means to help out. One could, quite literally, be a good citizen who works most or all the time gratis. This would be pro bono publico (for the public good), but it would also be non bono privato (not for your good). So when considering pro bono requests, the question is, what’s appropriate?

What you can afford

As much as you would like to help worthy causes, you cannot run a business like a charity. Except for those small favors that take an occasional evening or two, do not consider pro bono requests until business profitability and stability have been achieved. If you’re not there yet, wait until you are.

When it’s okay

When you can predict cash flow that will cover all business expenses for twice as long as the work will last; when your yearly percent of billable time averages 60% or higher; when your yearly business plans and objectives are being met; when there will likely be no significant changes in your business mix or procedures, such as new employees or large assignments.

Determining how much

As long as these general guidelines are observed, there’s no ‘right’ level of pro bono involvement. Like any charitable contributions, your preferences and conscience have to be your guides. The larger the shop, the more discretionary downtime that exists, the easier it is to plan for a certain level of charitable work. Creative Business knows of a few larger shops that actually budget for donating 2% to 3% of their total billable time. For most shops and freelances, however, pro bono requests are handled on an informal, “if they catch me at the right time” basis. When it comes to pro bono projects, a few individuals and shops underwrite everything creative to delivery. Most, however, donate only labor, although often this is in conjunction with contributions from others, such as printers and paper merchants. If you don’t believe you can afford to take on even the creative portion of a project gratis, but still want to contribute, an option is to offer the client a break on your normal price. For example, reducing your creative fee by 50%. However, because this provides an opportunity for the less than scrupulous to get work by “marking up before marking down” some organizations tend to be suspicious of such an offer, jeopardizing somewhat the goodwill that pro bono assignments otherwise generate.

Where it is most common

Creative Business surveys show that the most common pro bono activity is within the creative community: writing, designing and illustrating for local organizations. This is also the purest form of pro bono because altruism is usually the sole benefit. From a practical standpoint, the most common activity is seldom the best, however. Organizations outside the creative community usually need more help. And working within the creative community produces few if any of the additional business-building benefits that usually accompany the pro bono work done in other areas.

What about tax benefits?

Regardless of how generous you may feel, considering pro bono requests would be a lot easier if they were backed up by a tax benefit. Unfortunately, it isn’t.The value of any labor donated, even to a not-for-profit or charitable organization, is not tax deductible in the United States. As for materials and expenses incurred in handling a pro bono assignment, as costs of doing business they do lower your tax base. But they do not provide any additional tax benefits. (If you are prosperous and wish to share your good fortune, write a personal check to a qualified charitable organization. It will be tax deductible.) There is one strategy that can produce something of a business benefit, though. Rather than donate creative time for a pro bono client who would normally pay for their own production, turn the tables: ask if they will pay for the creative if you donate the production cost. This way you will receive income that will at least partially offset your donation. (Because of the potential consequences, check with your accountant before making the offer.)

Wheat or chaff?

Given the difficulty of turning down requests, having some ground rules helps. They ensure you aren’t unduly swayed by an “opportunity” that is not in your best interests. If a pro bono solicitation can’t pass one, or a combination of the following criteria, it’s probably one that’s best to decline.

Will it feel good?

Donating your time to help out, or using your communications skills to create awareness, solicit action or raise funds, can be enormously satisfying. A pro bono project can also provide the type of challenge that may be lacking in everyday work, or offer a unique opportunity to spread your creative wings. But whatever you end up contributing, it will only be satisfying if you are strongly committed to the cause. Otherwise, a good Samaritan attempt will probably backfire.

Will the client also invest in the project?

The more of a clients own time and materials invested, the more important they usually consider a project to be. Importance usually translates into being easier to work with, greater appreciation and more satisfaction.

Will you get valuable recognition?

The publicity and exposure that sometimes accompanies pro bono activity can considerably offset the cost of your donated time. It can even make some activities into very cost-effective marketing investments. Will there be a news release extolling your participation, or a credit line on what you produce?

Will there be an opportunity to network?

Many pro bono activities provide an unequalled opportunity to meet and mingle with community and business leaders. Working side-by-side with executives from local corporations on a not-for-profit’s board of directors or a fund-raising drive can result in significant referrals and new assignments.

Will a favor beget a favor?

This is the strictly-business evaluation: what are the chances of getting a direct benefit from your donation? As examples: some type of “IOU” for redemption in the future a swapping of services — a referral call — a much-desired introduction — the use of the organizations member or mailing list.

Three considerations:

Your availability

If your financial or workload situation is such that the only way you can accept a pro bono project is on a “as time is available” basis, say so right up front. Giving up a little time to save a lot of money should be a reasonable trade-off for any client organization.

On the other hand, if you accept a pro bono project with-out any preconditions, you should treat it the same as a regular job. Putting it behind paying work – and the poor service, bad quality, and late delivery that will probably result – could wipe out any of the good will from accepting the project in the first place.

Your employees.

The enthusiasm you have for a favorite charity or pet project may not be shared by employees. Indeed, in some cases it could run counter to their strongly held beliefs. For this reason, it is always wise to at least check with employees before bringing any pro bono assignments into a shop. It is even better to give employees – particularly those who may be doing some of the work – a vote on which should be accepted and which rejected. And regardless of involvement or enthusiasm, never ask or pressure an employee to donate his or her time.

Their organization

Keep in mind that the very nature of a pro bono project often requires working with clients who aren’t as organized and businesslike as what you may be used to. In many cases this means you’ll not only have to be patient and flexible, but also build extra time into your schedule.

Working guidelines

Make sure your participation is well defined and finite. Whether you are approached about donating your time to a club committee, or handling a major print ad for a blue chip charity, don’t agree without knowing exactly what is required, and when it will end. If there is one universal plaint about pro bono contributions, it is that they often turn into dragged-out, or never-ending projects.

This is particularly important if you are handling a project for individuals who are not familiar with production processes and overall costs. In these cases, it is usually best to first describe three approaches you could take – bare bones, normal, and top quality. Then to relate the cost of each and how much you can afford to contribute. This helps avoid another common plaint: pro bono clients who are later disappointed in the results because of their unrealistic expectations.

Insist on creative latitude

One of the strongest attractions of doing a pro bono project is the possibility of handling a different challenge. Experimenting. You should never ignore any client’s needs and objectives, but it is perfectly appropriate to insist on creative latitude as a prerequisite.

This can actually benefit both parties. From a client’s perspective, many of the most effective and memorable communications efforts each year turn out to be done pro bono – a direct pay-back of giving greater creative freedom. And if you do end up producing work of this quality, you’ll get the additional benefit of a knockout portfolio piece. Maybe, too, the recognition that can only come from being an award winner.

Take charge

You should establish the schedule and procedures for all project work. It’s also up to you to make sure the client adheres to them. Keep in mind that many not-for-profit clients can be quite leisurely in the way they work. Time may mean money to you, it may not be as important to them.

The client/vendor relationship should be different, too – a little less emphasis on all-out service, a little more on sharing. As examples: the client should probably come to your place for meetings, rather than you go to theirs — you should limit the number of concepts you’ll produce, and the time presenting them — author’s alterations and changes should be collected and done all together — and so forth.

Explain everything you do

Much of what you provide to any client is intangible – thinking, strategizing and concepting. When doing a project for a regular client, this often necessitates explaining the creative process so there are fewer problems, especially at invoicing time. Although invoicing isn’t normally a concern with pro bono projects, it is nonetheless equally important to explain the extent and depth of all your efforts (see the column opposite). If you don’t do so, you’ll diminish the value of what you’re providing, especially to less sophisticated clients. And this negates one of the reasons for doing the work in the first place.

Record your time

Record all time and expenses for a pro bono project the same as you would any other assignment. This is important not only to help you track your own productivity, but is the basis for the “invoice” you’ll send later.

Getting full value

Anonymity is a not a virtue in business donations. You should take care not to be tasteless or aggressive, but you should nonetheless make sure you get full credit for your contributions.

Ask for a credit line

It isn’t always possible, but where it is, it just may introduce your work to a potential new client.

Distribute copies

Don’t take the chance that your efforts will go unnoticed by current clients. Attach a “I thought you’d be interested” note, and send each client a copy.

Arrange publicity

Ask the the PR organizations of larger not-for-profits to send out a routine press release. For smaller ones, draft and send your own.

Send an invoice

Every project should result in an invoice, even when all or most of what you did was for free. Indicate the service performed and its value followed by the words “no charge”. (For example: “Conceptual time 8 hours @$150 per hour = no charge.) Only by so doing will the client truly appreciate just how much they actually received.

How to say ‘no’

No matter how altruistic and generous you are, you’re bound to get asked sooner or later for a contribution you can’t, or don’t want to make. Here’s what to say when it’s appropriate to dodge the pro bono bullet.

When asked to donate your personal time (versus professional efforts), it’s usually best to plead busyness. For example: “I’d love to help, but I just can’t. I’m absolutely snowed under right now. If I served on the committee, I wouldn’t be able to give it the attention it deserves. And that would actually be a disservice to (the organization).”

When asked to donate professional efforts, it’s best to plead business responsibility. For example: “Thanks for thinking of us. We wish we could help you out. Because we believe in giving something back to the community in which we work, each year we budget for a considerable amount of donated time and efforts. Unfortunately, we have already committed for the entire amount allocated.”

Not all requests, however, are for volunteerism, or a significant, “charitable” contribution. Some are for what can only be described as old-fashioned favors. A friend, neighbor, or relative needs an ad or brochure for their small business, a local club, church group, or civic organization. In some cases they’re even prepared to pay, and believe they are doing you a favor by providing work.

From your standpoint, the job is probably too small to be creatively stimulating. There’s no portfolio or publicity value. And if it is for a charitable organization, it may not be one you particularly want to donate to.

To make matters worse, charging normal, commercial rates may insult those offering to pay. Yet, even a reduced fee is probably too small to be worth the effort, especially if it detracts from larger assignments you are working on.

Probably the best response in these situations is something like this: Thanks for thinking of me. But the truth is, I’m really not set up to handle work like this (any-more). It would probably be better if you went to someone who specializes in it, like Kinko’s or AlphaGraphics. They can do a much better job than I can.” If appropriate, even take the job to the copy shop for them.

If this is not an appropriate response -., it would be insulting to turn the work down – to accept the project on a “as-time-is-available” basis, do the work for free, and ask only that they return the favor sometime in the distant future.

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