Rethinking Pro Bono

It’s no surprise that most designers are do-gooders by nature who want to stay connected with the world. They’re optimistic, energetic, compassionate and idealistic in their beliefs about how things could be different. This is a good thing, and it would be hard to quantify the cumulative impact that creative firms and individual design professionals have had over the decades.

On top of that, there’s a strong overlap between who you are as a human and what you do as a businessperson. While this creates some challenges for your personal boundaries and how you make business decisions, there are many cases in which your core beliefs come to life through your profession. This means that an enormous amount of great thinking has been applied to good causes. In fact, your tendency is probably to donate your services, rather than your money. (Which, I’ll argue, is somewhat problematic. But more on that in a moment.)

pro-bono strategyimage courtesy of Shutterstock

So, what do you think happens when you mix great talent and enthusiasm with the unmet needs of causes that the creative community believes very strongly in? Exactly right: You end up with caring people rushing headlong into situations where neither effort nor money is applied all that efficiently, and some of the good ends up wasted. It’s like 20 people hurrying to aid someone drowning in the ocean. Not only will the swimmer get less help, but some of the rescuers might be doing themselves harm.

So how do we really help these causes and help ourselves in the process? First, know that it is not selfish to look out for yourself while you’re doing good. If you do that job well, there’s a much better chance that you’ll be around later when the needs still exist. How many times have you heard a flight attendant say, “Adults should put their own oxygen mask on first before helping a child sitting next to them”? What looks selfish is simply common sense. Do what’s best for both, or your own lack of planning will hurt everybody. That’s why it’s worth stepping back for a minute and thinking about your process in helping the causes that matter to you. Otherwise, the allure of opportunity and doing great work (supposedly without client interference) can end up being less effective.

The Old Pro Bono Way

Pro bono publico is a Latin phrase that refers to the application of your professional expertise to some “public good” as a service rendered, without pay. Even though it’s long been a part of the creative-services industry, pro-bono design work is still not typically managed well in three respects.

First, it’s often reactive rather than emerging from a considered approach that would bring greater benefit to everyone involved. Your desire to do pro-bono design may be prompted by positive motives, but it’s also prompted by your frustration at working for paying clients who “don’t get it.” So your desire to make an impact for a grateful client builds, and you end up taking a pro-bono project as a creative outlet, without thinking as carefully about it as you should.

Second, you sometimes choose the recipients of your largesse for the wrong reasons: They asked first, they were the most persuasive, they offered the most interesting creative opportunity, there was some personal connection, or they didn’t object to enduring the work of less experienced employees cutting their teeth on hapless victims.

Third, pro-bono projects are often viewed as a diversion instead of a strong contribution that aligns with your mission, culture and expertise. In other words, the work isn’t taken as seriously, since these deserving entities must be content with the scraps. It’s an outlet for you (which it should be), but it’s not necessarily more than that.

The New Pro Bono Way

The impact of your pro-bono design should be managed well (like any other resource), and here are three very specific recommendations to maximize that impact. Consider this a new model for doing good.

1. Let pro bono projects flow from written guidelines.
The first recommendation is to be intentional in your pro-bono work. To do that, you’ll need written guidelines (like a mission statement), against which you can make those difficult decisions that are required when demand exceeds supply. And demand will always exceed supply—so get comfortable declining pro-bono work. Otherwise you’ll overextend yourself, and the causes will suffer, too, because you’ll lose interest.

Among many other things, these written guidelines should offer direction to the decision makers (more on that to come) on aligning your choices about which pro-bono clients to serve with your demonstrated expertise (i.e., your specialization or focus), as well as with the distinct culture at your firm. These two areas of alignment will be critical in getting and giving the most for your time and money, and they’ll keep your team engaged in doing good things.

Emotional intelligence includes the ability to say no, and it’s easier to say no if you have guidelines that you can refer to. Written guidelines aren’t callous; they don’t mean that you don’t care about causes. Instead, taking the time to establish them is a sure sign that you care enough to do it. In the process, you’ll be making better long-term decisions, yielding greater impact and sustainability from your time and money.

As you’ve probably already discovered, it’s nice to not just do the right thing, but to do the right thing for the right reasons. If both of those things are true, this usually translates into activity that’s not only impactful, but genuinely fun, too.

2. Use an inclusive advisory board with term limits.
The second suggestion is to remove yourself from the ground-level decision-making (after you’ve appropriately been heavily involved in developing the guidelines above). Because demand for your contribution will always exceed supply, you’ll find it helpful to insulate yourself personally from the decision in conversations that can go like this: “That sounds like an interesting opportunity. In fact, could you run it through our advisory group? We’re so committed to doing this sort of work that we have crafted some guidelines and set aside a significant budget to make sure it happens and happens well.”

One great way to do this is to set up two- or three-year layered terms, with one representative each from these six groups: agency owners, agency managers, agency employees, clients, prospects and community leaders. The advisory board’s role is to make decisions about where your agency will contribute based on the guidelines you’ve crafted.

This insulates you, ensures better decisions and involves a bigger group. For example, since your pro-bono work is ideally aligned with your expertise, and since your clients are aligned in the same way, wouldn’t it be great to contribute together for greater impact?

3. Select three (and only three) pro-bono clients.
The third recommendation is to make decisions about pro-bono work way ahead of time, preferably on an annual basis. Once a year, led by your advisory board, enlist local media to spread the word in your community that you’re seeking pro-bono clients. What will that do? It will raise the importance of pro bono in your community as a whole. It will raise your firm’s profile. And it will be more likely to connect you with the right opportunities.

Invite prospects to download a simple, one-page PDF form from your website, on which they’ll outline their organization’s mission, their situation and their request. Set specific guidelines and a deadline for submission, then take any applications that meet your requirements to your advisory board for their evaluation and recommendations.

Select six entities for the second and final stage (winners from the year before are excluded, just to spread your impact as widely as possible). This isn’t meant to throw huge hurdles in front of needy organizations, but it is meant to identify those who would benefit the most and who are organized enough to follow directions and treat this like a business decision. You have your own horror stories of disorganized, committee-driven, chaotic charity work—they’re the ones this process will exclude.

In this stage, prospects follow a prescribed format while pitching their need to the same advisory panel. Again, one subtle purpose is to see if the folks on the cause side of the table are organized enough to meet deadlines, make decisions and follow directions. Of the six entities who are invited to make the pitch, select three. And here’s where the advice really veers from conventional practice: You won’t be creating design work for all three clients. Just one receives totally free labor to accomplish a specific, measurable project. The second receives a strategic plan (as an alternative, you may “donate” your best thinker to volunteer on a committee for the client organization). A third receives a cash gift to use for a specific purpose.

Why three awards? Well, I feel strongly that pro-bono work should not be done for reduced fees. It should either be at the normal rate or free. Discounted fees cause confusion and resentment: If we offer a favorable deal, we expect something in return, but if we get full price, there’s no resentment, and if we give it away entirely, there’s no expectation of anything in return. It’s as if your brother asks to borrow money— you’re better off saying no or simply giving it to him; loaning the money creates a strange relationship with unexpressed expectations.

I also want to make sure that you’re not being invited to sit on an organization’s committee (or board) for any reason other than your brains. Too many times such an invitation is really a request for money, but you don’t figure that out until you’ve wasted hours of time in meetings only to be hit up later. Keep your contribution of money and services separate, and insist that the genuinely needy organization is straight with you about wanting your advice, your work or your cash.

And frankly, when all the costs are added up, it’s almost always cheaper to give them money.

Think—hard—about what you donate.

Giving money instead of your creative services isn’t as fun, of course, but it is cheaper. But what about this tendency among designers to give their labor and their ideas instead of their dollars? Perhaps—and this is alarming—money is the scarcer resource. One of the ideas I’ve been exploring is that owning a business that’s not significantly profitable may very well be unethical in itself. I know, that seems like an absurd idea. But running your business really well (and honorably, of course) is going to yield all sorts of money, which is incredibly powerful as a tool for doing good.

I wish more designers would take the Warren Buffett approach in running their businesses and leave the Mother Teresa stuff for their personal lives. When you mix profit and altruism, neither ends up being very powerful. Since I know that most of you want to mix the two, hopefully these suggestions will preserve the integrity of your business—and your pro-bono work.

Set a Smarter Pro-Bono Strategy

This is a different take on pro-bono work, but it’s one I hope you’ll consider for your firm. If you’re an employee at a studio that lacks a thoughtful strategy, how about taking the lead? As you craft your own approach, consider that any good pro-bono strategy:

  • Is good for others by enabling strong organizations that are already doing good things
  • Is good for you so that you have fun and always have more than enough volunteers to help
  • Uses your best people (not the young ones who need to practice or have nothing else to do)
  • Aligns with your expertise in the marketplace
  • Is organic, always staying fresh and interesting
  • Helps you attract prospective employees
  • Helps you attract prospective clients
  • Helps you raise the awareness of pro bono in your community
  • Involves as many people as possible.

As the repository of some of the strongest persuasive powers on the planet, we can have an enormous impact in our local communities, and it’s the right thing to do. Let’s do more of it, and let’s do it well.

David C. Baker is principal of Nashville, TN-based ReCourses Inc., which has consulted with hundreds of creative businesses. He’s also partner in HOW’s Mind Your Own Business Conference, business management training for the creative firm owner.

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