Pro Bono … or is it?

JR Ewing (Larry Hagman) from 'Dallas'

Do you freelance? Do your friends, family or colleagues call upon you to use your creative skill set to help them? Should you give away your work or talent for free? Read this article and ask yourself “What would J.R. Ewing do?”

If you’re talented at something, it’s bound to happen – people are going to start asking you to use your talents to help them in their personal and professional life. Graphic designers, artists, writers, photographers – if you’re a creative type and you’re good at what you do, you shouldn’t be surprised to be approached to take on a project for someone you know. What you also shouldn’t be surprised about is the tricky tightrope you’ll be walking: is the service you’re providing to your family and friends (or friends of friends) pro bono (for free, no money is made) or do you expect to get paid for the work you’ll do?

This can be a frustrating position to be put into. Let’s face it – we all want freebies. Your family and yes, even your friends, expect you to help them – for little or no profit. Yet, as a creative type, should you be giving away your talents for free? This is your special skill; this is your time you’ll be spending on their needs when you could be spending it on making more money. For many people in the creative line of work, your talent is your money, it’s your business, it’s your livelihood!

Here’s my feeling about pro bono work: choose wisely. Call me hardcore or a stickler but I don’t believe in giving away your talents, and time, for free. When it comes to family, expect to give it away for free – you just aren’t going to feel comfortable, and they aren’t going to react well, to you charging them on your usual per hour rate or some high fee. That’s ok – family, if you maintain a good relationship with them and they’re proud of the work you do – will hype your business at a drop of a hat and make you look better than anyone else out there. Doing something for no charge for a family member isn’t bad – usually, a family member (at least immediate ones) have done many things for you for free and would never think about doing something you’ve asked of them and then presenting you with a bill afterward.

Friends and colleagues, however, are another story. Don’t get me wrong – friends are great but they sometimes forget that you’re a professional. If you’re a photographer, they’ll want you to shoot their wedding … for free, or snap photos of their newly born kids and be the on-call photographer for any special event. Suddenly, there’s no need for Sears or Glamor Shots – they’ve got you! If you’re a graphic designer, they’ll suddenly lay a huge design task at your doorstep and will go from being a friend to a pain-in-the-behind client. What makes you think your friend won’t act like your clients? Just because you’re doing something for free doesn’t mean your friend(s) will remain cool and laidback. Often times they’ll eat up your valuable time, make tons of demands, nag and set unrealistic time constraints on you. Worst of all – you’ll feel guilty and obligated to do everything they ask of you – for free – for the sake of your friendship!

How do you get around this? I do think some pro bono work is good for every designer. I like the idea of choosing a legit non-profit, a cause, an event you believe in or someone you know who’s really down on their luck and needs a helping hand (maybe you’ll build a website at no charge for someone who’s in search of a job; you’ll create a dazzling graphic display of a friends work so they’ll get more clients; you’ll proofread and give tips for how to improve someone’s resume). You can choose one or two charity/good will cases a year, even go so far as to put it out there that you’re offering free design, photography, whatever you desire for a month, week, year (whatever you choose) and have businesses and individuals submit a proposal as to why they think they deserve or would do with your services. Why do this? Well, in a hippie way, it’s good karma. Ever heard of the phrase “pay it forward”? Sure, you may not make big bucks on this pro bono work but you’ll be helping a cause and doing something valuable with your talents and time that goes beyond you. Also, it’ll be free publicity. Have your pro bono clients refer you to others and you could easily expand your network and pool of paying clients.

Now, we already said it – for family, just expect to lend your talents for free and expect nothing but praise and perhaps some referrals in return. Friends and colleagues? That’s the tricky situation. How do you help them but protect yourself from being taken advantage of at the same time?

First, if your friend or colleague wants you to help them out by utilizing your talent – thank them. It’s just good practice to thank people for thinking of you rather than running to someone else they know or think could help them. It means they trust you, know you’re good at what they’re asking and expecting of you and trust you with their work. Next, bring up money – politely. Money is always a subject that I feel many designers and other creative types either don’t think enough about or don’t feel confident enough to bring up. Why not? I usually have a general idea of how much time will be involved in a task. A logo design is never just a logo – it’s a process that starts with brainstorming, involves some research and then can produce two or three completely different designs. It takes time. And time is money. This is true of any creative task whether it’s writing, photography, web design – it takes a lot of time and you’ll be working on this project usually when you could have been working on something else and getting paid for it. Bringing up money in the beginning, perhaps with a polite, “So, what’s your budget?” or “How much are you looking to spend on this?” will set the tone. Suddenly, you’ve switched from friend mode to business mode and that’s okay too – work is work and you need to keep friendship separated from business.

Next, don’t jump right in. Even though you’re working with a friend or colleague, this is still a creative process and business. I’d advise you not give a big “Ok! I’ll do this for you” until you’ve truly thought about it and outlined it. Ask you friend/colleague to give you some time – perhaps a day or two, to come up with a plan of attack. Use this time to write down all the steps in the process – create a timeline and set milestones of what you, as the principal designer/creative type, see as happening. Actually take the time to write out a brief description beside each time. You’ll want to give your friend a clear picture of what’s involved in the task they’ve asked of you. At the bottom of this timeline, mention money. Now, depending on how friendly you are towards this person, you can cut them a deal. Be fair – to both them and yourself, and don’t sell yourself short on what you’re doing for them. Present this to them in person, or by E-mail. Give them the time to read it over and become informed of your process and the task they’ve asked of you. Many disagreements between friends who work together happen because we all assume that our friends “get” us. Surely they must understand our time is valuable, that our talent is what makes us money, that we have bills to pay … right? Not necessarily. When you’re working, you’re working. Treat your friends like a new client and add some formality into it.

The issue of money will undoubtedly arise. Be bold and in your proposal you give to your friend or colleague, give a price you feel comfortable with. The idea is what with an outline of how you’ll perform the requested task, they’ll see all the steps involved and so the price you’ve asked for will seem a bit more justified. Still, you may find that though the price you’ve named seems low to you, it’ll seem outrageously high to a friend – who expected you to work for free. Don’t back down. Calmly express to them that just to take on their task, you’re having to turn down paying work. Express that you’re more than happy to help but you can’t afford to work for free at the moment. I don’t feel you need to say more than that. With today’s job market and economy, saying this will be no lie. Time is money and helping a friend can be costly to you. Plus, take into account that once you start and provide your services to a friend, they’re going to transform before your eyes into a client. They could either be the best client you could ever ask for and may call on you in the future for bigger and better jobs or they can drain you dry and have you pulling your hair out after being driven to the brink of madness.

Next, discuss a schedule of payment. Again, some of you may think I’m being entirely hardcore but I’ve had this happen to me in basic freelancing and know it’s a situation you could wind up in when working with friends. If you don’t discuss when you expect payment, don’t be surprised when you’re waiting weeks, months or years for your friend or freelance client to step up and pay you for the service or work you’ve provided. If they dance around the subject, perhaps you should reconsider helping them. Pull a Jan Brady and create your own imaginary client/George Glass and tell them something more pressing has suddenly come up and you really aren’t in a position to help at this time. If your friend tries to guilt you into doing this for free, then really the ball is in your court – you can accept it and do their job for free or turn them down. Don’t complain when things become unbearable because you didn’t outline any terms or talk about money upfront!

Again, how can you protect yourself? Just treat your work like a business and as something truly expensive and valuable. Don’t give it away for free or cheapen it and learn to defend yourself as a professional and justify your prices. Don’t agree to anything without thinking it through. Outline the design/creative process, put your requested price down and if you negotiate or deviate away from that price, rewrite it and have your client (whether it’s a friend, colleague or complete stranger) sign and date it. Yes, it’s all very business like but freelancing or working for anyone using your time and talents is business and you should be making money from it.

For those reading this after the fact – what can you do? You’ve already jumped into a project that you’re finding isn’t all you thought it would be considering you were approached by someone you know or consider a friend or close colleague. You missed your chance to define this relationship between you and your friend/colleague as one of business (meaning you’re making a profit) and one of friendship (doing it without having an issue of giving away your talents or time for free). Well, lucky for you, the above “business” approach to freelancing or working with friends and colleagues still applies to you. Perhaps what was supposed to be a simple, one or two hour task has morphed into a day or week(s) long job that you realize is eating up your time and costing you money. What can you do? You already agreed to do this for your friend or colleague for free. Well, no contract was signed, in most cases you provided them with a good amount of free work. At some point, you need to put your foot down. Yes, it’ll be a bit nasty and hard to do but you’ll need to free yourself of the friend or colleague who’s become a monster client and get back to your business and life. You could always bring up money – politely – by mentioning that you’ve done a great deal of work on what was described as an easy, quick task and you can’t devote much more time to it if you aren’t going to make money. You’ve got bills, you’ve got a life, you’ve got things to do – and a friend or colleague should be aware or understand. If not, then again, walk away and leave your friend/colleague with the work you did for them. How about the friend/colleague or freelance client that won’t discuss money? Keep bringing it up and find a way to put a big, expansive watermark over the work you’ve provided for them. When they ask if you can remove it, tell them sure, when they pay. I’ve found this guerrilla method works pretty well in showing you’re no sap and they’re going to have to pay for the work you’ve done.

Really, think of yourself like some of television’s most hard-nosed business-driven characters – ‘Dallas’ had J.R. Ewing, ‘Dynasty’ had Blake and Alexis; ‘Melrose Place’ had Amanda Woodward. Would any of these characters, who were very business-driven and always had their mind on money, give away their talents for free? Heck no, they knew how valuable their businesses, corporations and products were and had no problem making sure they were always getting paid for their hard work (or scheming) – and that’s how you should act if you want to be a successful creative type who’s rolling in the money rather than begging for it.

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About Antoine

Antoine is a graphic designer and artist currently residing in North Carolina. He has a degree in Journalism and Mass Communication with a concentration in Visual Communication and specializes in graphic design and illustration. He has spent the past six years as a graphic artist for several publications based in North Carolina. He invites you to visit his design and social media blog at
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One Response to Pro Bono … or is it?

  1. Pingback: LXXIX: The Pro Bono Way | Jamie Wayne

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