Rules for working for free

Here’s a story about a designer and her brother. He (let’s call him Hugo) is CEO of a not-for-profit food-rescue organisation. She, (let’s call her Ella), is the founder and creative director of a design firm working in the healthcare sector.

It’s June. Most not-for-profits are competing for end-of-financial-year tax-deductible donations. Hugo knows he needs a presence online to compete for the dollar but has no marketing budget left.

Any idea what happens next?

Yep, Hugo calls Ella. It’s no surprise, at some stage in their career most designers will be asked (or may choose) to work pro bono – for free – or, at a heavily reduced cost. It may be for a not-for-profit, for a client with a low income or, as in this case, it could be for family.

Regardless of who it is, the rules are the same.

Rule 1.

Do not treat this project any differently to a full-fee paying project.

Once you agree, it’s important your commitment, response and service are consistent to all other clients. It’s fair, it’s ethical, but it’s also good business sense.

Working pro bono can form part of your new business strategy. Remember the six-degrees relationship strategy – everyone is just six degrees removed from another. Referral is the best recommendation, and this could be the start of something great.

Rule 2.

Agree to your commitment in writing.

Start with documenting the brief. Even if you write it yourself it’s important to document the scope of the work so both you and your client have clear expectations. From the brief you can prepare an estimate of costs (see rule 3).

Rule 3.

Do not assume the recipient of your goodwill understands the monetary value of your skills. They won’t, and nor should they. So, you have to tell them, in writing.

Present an estimate of costs as you would any other client. For the same reason, at the end of the project, invoice the job in full. The bottom line can be credited back to a zero balance, but it is important to document the value of your work.

Rule 4.

Write a contract of engagement.

It can be brief: ‘xxx designer commits to do this and xxx client commits to supply that’ but do try to include an outline of roles and responsibilities and set expectations (like deadlines).

I’ve based these rules on my experience working pro bono for two very different companies.

For the past couple of years, I worked one day per week pro bono for SecondBite – a great organisation that distributes good, nutritious but waste food to people in need. My commitment meant they could save up their ‘needs’ until Thursday, knowing I had made time to accommodate them then. Sometimes I spent part of Thursday in their office helping with strategy, other times it was in my studio designing EDMs. Some weeks were busy, other weeks were not.

I work differently with WISHIIN. WISHIN’s mission is to ensure every woman has a safe home every night. They help victims of domestic violence. For the past six years I’ve designed their Annual Report – not for free, but at a heavily reduced cost. I offer my advice, my design and my design management skills at no cost, however I charge artwork at full fee. That’s because some years I’ve needed to outsource the artwork to others while I spend my time designing for other clients. My budget is probably about the same as they would pay a printer to do the artwork, so they have a cost structure in place if ever I’m not available to do the work.

And Hugo and Ella?

The story has a good ending. Their working relationship was confirmed in writing with a brief, an estimate and an invoice.

Hugo seems the obvious winner from the activity. He received a well-designed EDM campaign aimed directly at his prime market. The result was more donations than any previous campaign, and a solid strategy on which to base ongoing campaigns. He also gained knowledge. He didn’t really understand what Ella did, but he now has an intimate knowledge of her industry and the value design delivers. In fact, when a guy in his basketball team – the CEO of a large regional hospital – pulled out of some game citing problems with a supplier, Hugo could confidently pass on Ella’s contact details.

Ella also gained. She briefed one of her designers looking for new challenges. They leapt at the chance of working in a different industry sector and learning more about EDMs. The research into not-for-profits, and knowledge gained about online marketing strategies, has opened up options for new business opportunities. She’s also gained admiration from an older brother – what’s not to love about that?


Carol Mackay

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2018 is a big year for Carol. Thirty-three years after founding Mackay Branson design, she transitioned from client-focused projects to use her skills with the Design Business Council, and The Design Business School. Her skill has always been using design to translate difficult to understand or complex messages into bite-size chunks of information, more palatable and easier to digest. She did to do that for government organisations, ombudsman schemes and the judicial and finance sectors. Now Carol uses the same skills to translate business concepts into practical tools, resources and skills designers can use everyday.

Carol has just written a new program for the The Design Business School. The Design Studio Management Program is aimed at designers, design graduates and existing design studio managers to help them develop skills to fast track their career path. Contact Carol for more information.


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