Within my network, I often notice appeals for pro bono freelance creative services, including copywriting, website design/development and graphic design. As a creative professional with primarily nonprofit clients, a former in-house communications manager and a former volunteer manager, this raises a number of concerns and cautions.

 Expect to get what you pay for

There are some very skilled folks who are willing to take on an occasional pro bono project for a cause in which they believe. However, if you are trying to get work done for free, be aware of the talent pool into which you are potentially dipping. Someone who is willing to work free of charge may have less experience, training or for some other reason (not enough paid work?), has the time to take on such projects. Personally, I prefer to support my causes through donations and volunteer opportunities that broaden my horizons and experiences. I love it, but copywriting is how I pay the bills.

Screen candidates

I was recently shocked when a well-respected colleague generously responded to a call for pro bono work – only to find the position had been filled the very day it was posted!

Even if you are comfortable with tapping into a new/emerging talent pool, you certainly shouldn’t snap up the first candidate that comes along. As you should do with any supplier or potential volunteer, make an effort to evaluate multiple candidates. Your executive director’s wife who is handy with a video camera or board member’s son who plays around with web design may not have the business experience, professionalism or tools to deliver what you need.

Create a meaningful experience

Take the time to craft a clear project or role description and then advertise it as a meaningful opportunity for a talented professional to support your cause. Don’t treat this as spec work, trying to draw in talent with promises of potential paid work down the road. Make it an opportunity unto itself, instead of creating hope and expectations that you may not be able to fulfill.

Stick to your end of the bargain

Once your professional is lined up, clarify all expectations as you would for a paying gig. Create a written agreement that includes the assignment deliverables, timelines, number of revisions, review process, etc., and then stick to it. Unfortunately, it’s my experience and observation that clients attach less value to unpaid work – rather than appreciating the generosity and value of the free services they are getting – and pro bono projects often fall to the wayside.

Keep in mind why they are doing it

As I mentioned, there are a number of legitimate reasons why a creative professional might be willing to work for free. Keep this in mind and ensure they are benefitting as they expected to. If your freelancer wants to build his/her portfolio, practice skills and expand his/her network, see the project through to completion. When the project is done, be sure to provide any samples you have promised, perhaps along with a testimonial and allow him/her to publish your organization’s name in their client list.

Budget for the future

Although I’ve shared my thoughts on navigating a pro bono situation, it’s not something I recommend as a sustainable practice. If you needed help for this project, it’s a sign that you may need to build a marketing/communications budget for the future. Marketing and communications are necessary to driving the ‘business’ of your nonprofit forward and should be treated as a legitimate budget line/expense.

Marlene Oliveira

Marlene Oliveira

Communications advisor and copywriter at moflow
Marlene Oliveira is communications consultant and copywriter at moflow and founder of the Nonprofit MarCommunity blog. Having worked in the nonprofit sector since 1999, Marlene specializes in working with capacity building and grant-making organizations, advising on communications strategy, and writing stories and other content.
Marlene Oliveira
Marlene Oliveira