How to Get “Paid” for Volunteering (part 1)

Laurel BlackAs creative professionals, we are continually challenged to find and engage with our target markets.

As solopreneurs, we have to do this as cost-effectively as possible, being without the big marketing budgets of agencies. A great way to do this is to volunteer.

I live in a small community where it is possible to connect in ways that may not be possible in larger areas. However, there are certain principles that can be applied at any scale, including online.

1. Choose strategically as well as ethically. There are two things to consider in choosing how to volunteer. One, of course, is to pick a cause that reflects your personal values. If you support organic farming, you could join the board of the local farmer’s market. If you support community outreach to at-risk populations, you might volunteer for the YMCA or United Way. Service clubs like Rotary are highly effective at doing good and have many business people as members.

The other consideration is strategic. Most organizations have boards whose members are listed on their web sites. Look at the board lists of the causes you want to help, and look for people for whom you would like to work. Volunteering is a perfect way to showcase your worth while supporting a cause your prospect cares about. But your support has to be sincere – phonies and opportunists will eventually be outed, resulting in negative marketing. Sincere support is first, your marketing agenda is second.

2.  Volunteer for tasks that require your abilities. This is a golden opportunity to demonstrate your creativity, professionalism and integrity to potential clients. You will be judged the same as on a paid job, so treat it accordingly. Show up, do what you said you would do, and be accountable and available. Don’t assume that because you are working for free that the job is any less important to your reputation or matters less than your paid work.

3. Define the assignment the same as you would paid work. Set it up in front with a formal proposal that has defined scope, timeline, etc., just as if you were being paid. This does two things: it sets limits as to what you will do pro bono, and it educates your fellow volunteers as to what such a job entails. It would be very bad if your philanthropy resulted in misperceptions about what it takes to execute a design project properly. It’s up to you to prevent that by being clear about the assignment’s details and boundaries.

4. Execute as though the gods were watching your every move. This is your chance to show the pillars of your community not only how excellent your work is and how professional you are, but what a joy you are to work with. People tend to hire those they know and trust. This is how you show that you are that person. People also tend to hire those who they feel have similar values.

5. Do not neglect invoicing! It’s another opportunity to educate your future client, and also gives your group a valuable tool for fundraising. Non-profits are always chasing grants. Often grants require either a hard or soft match for the funds they hand out. A hard match means the group has to match the grant in dollars. A soft match means the group can provide a match of in-kind services. This has to be documented, however, and that’s where your invoice comes in. You submit an invoice for the job as you usually do with its actual price, and then add a note that says “Discounted 100%” (or 50% if it’s a partial pro bono). This will not only allow the group to use your donation as a soft match, but it will also make them fully aware of the value of what you gave. This will ensure that when Mr. Fellow Board Member comes to you for design for his business that he doesn’t have any unfortunate assumptions of what it will cost. And it will also make you look like a hero for thinking of it. They will thank you.

Have you tried any of these techniques? How do they work? What hasn’t worked? Feel free to share any horror stories about volunteering gone wrong, so others can learn from it.

9 thoughts on “How to Get “Paid” for Volunteering (part 1)

  1. Corrie Francis Parks

    Great post! I never thought about invoicing for volunteer or pro bono work. I’m an animator and have always worried that the people I do little projects for will tell future potential clients about the “token” payment they gave me rather than the actual market value of my work. This addresses that problem very professionally. I look forward to more thoughts!

  2. Lynda Colón

    Hi Laurel. I agree, ProBono is a great way to not only get involved with your community but also to get free advertising. Sometimes it makes sense to invest time rather than money. I do alot of ProBono and I have found that most of those clients will allow me to put my stamp on the piece and plug my business. They distribute it to businesses and community leaders for free.

    Love the ProBono work, but you are correct in writing that the parameters of the job should be clarified upfront – I’ve learned that the hard way.

  3. Naresia

    Volunteering is an excellent way to market your talent. I volunteer for a health-care facility that targets at risk-population. One of their affiliates ask me to a speaking engagement on health. The topic had nothing to do with design. My presentation, materials and a 3 min intro of my services was well worth it. I was given an opportunity to work with them, a hospice. I never thought about invoicing except when their were supply cost. I could always write those off. I equally do their grant writing and duh, an invoice every time I perform a service will assist them at anytime and like you mentioned, it gets my worth out onto the table.
    Thank you,

  4. O.

    I’m curious, how would you invoice them? Is this something you would mention in the proposal? One problem I have ran into is getting overwhelming emails asking for changes and updates to the design, how can this problem be addressed? If pro bono should be treated like a regular client, should I also set the guidelines for how many revisions they are allowed to make?

    1. Laurel Black

      Yes, treating pro bono projects the same way you handle paid work will help keep expectations in line, and this includes sending them an invoice at the time of delivery as I described earlier. Definitely include in your proposal the part about how many rounds of approval the client gets. Review the proposal with the client before starting the work so that you know that they understand the terms under which you are agreeing to donate your time.

      Even with all this preparation, there will be times when the situation does not turn out well. I am going to address that in the second part of this article, so stay tuned.

  5. Nick Carranza

    #5…Why didn’t I think of that? Great Idea! I also found your point(under #1) about being sincere very relavent to a situation I found myself in a couple weeks ago. I’ve noticed plenty of phoniness during this slightly fizzled environmental movement we’re all experiencing. A potential client actually asked me, “What can you design so that we look like we’re going green?” As much as I would’ve loved to smack them with a Birkenstock, I had to educate them about sincerity.

    Lots of good info here, thanks!

    1. Laurel Black

      It hadn’t occurred to me to think about sincerity going both ways when you qualify the project in the beginning – excellent point, Nick! It sounds like another straw in the wind to help tell in advance whether your good will might end up being exploited (see part 2). So did you get them to see the light? Did you end up working for them?

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