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Clients Pay the Price for Pro-Bono Work


I’m fresh off of a great call with a prospective client who really seemed to “get” our approach and work. Unfortunately, I’m second guessing it all because at the end of our wonderful chat, she said “And as far as budget goes, you know we’re a nonprofit, so we like the free stuff!” I responded the way I always do “Yes, the majority of our clients are nonprofits, so we work hard to keep our costs reasonable, but we don’t do pro-bono work.”

Even though having this conversation no longer makes me uncomfortable, the experience reminded me of the double-edged sword that is the concept of pro-bono design work. Over the past decade, Nate and I have approached it in many ways, and here’s where we’ve firmly landed: clients pay the price for pro-bono work.

**A few caveats to keep in mind as you read further:

We know there are good agency / organization partnerships in which the work is pro-bono. In our experience, they are few and far between. If you are part of one, I’d be interested to hear how you established and maintain it. Also, there are ways to get strategic, effective work at ALL price points. Talented freelance designers and writers can be game-changers for organizations just starting out or working with smaller budgets. And finally, if you are working for an organization that has not prioritized at least a moderate budget for marketing, you should think hard about your ability to be successful without that kind of outreach and support. Alright, now on to our thoughts:

Passion projects don’t pay anyone’s bills.

Agencies famously get excited to take up a “passion project” and doing good work for good causes feels great (believe me, I’m lucky to get to do this stuff every day!). Saying yes to that request for pro-bono seems like the best thing in the world. But when billable hours compete with pro-bono hours, agencies must prioritize work that keeps the lights on and pays the team. Problem is, the nonprofit clients also have business goals to meet, money to raise and people to help, and they can’t push those off until an agency can squeeze in the work. Late, unfocused, or undelivered work is a price that nonprofits bear.

It’s hard to build an impact with an annual report.

What we know is that truly making change requires a long-term view and a partner who understands how all the pieces fit together.Pro-bono work is generally episodic for a couple of reasons. Organizations don’t always see how each communication piece, publication and digital campaign can work together to build their brand, so they chunk up the work, internally as well as with partners. And it’s harder for agencies to sign on for long-term, ongoing free work than to say sure, they can do the next annual report. But every poster, report and campaign that deviates from the brand chips away at the organization’s impact, which is a high price for nonprofits to pay.

Complex work has value.

Nonprofit organizations are doing critical work, making lasting social change in our communities every day. They deserve partners who will put in the time, dig in and understand their unique model and aspirations. And the pro-bono approach does a disservice to both the nonprofit and the agency by devaluing the work of each.  Asking agencies to discount the thinking, experience and perspective that they bring doesn’t make much sense either. We’ve worked with organizations of all sizes who understand that good work without strategic storytelling makes you the best kept secret in town. Reasonable investment in working with an agency partner means that you’ll get the best team of experts who are energized and ready to create something with you that will move your organization forward. Anything less is a waste of time and money.

I’ll acknowledge that working with an agency to create key messaging, evolve your brand or develop a new website is an investment and part of that “overhead” that non-profit organizations are held accountable for (that’s another post entirely!). My advice to organizations who are in this situation is to be clear about your goals and come to a potential agency partner ready to talk through what can be done within your budget. Let us help you define your challenges and brainstorm solutions within the budget you’ve set. That way, we’re truly creating a partnership that benefits your organization and moves you forward.