Approach pro bono projects with caution

pro bono work projects can be extremely frustrating if not managed well

Over the past many years I have been designing websites (and other creative work), I have been asked a few times to do work pro bono. These requests come from church organisations, non-profits and individuals. A few businesses have asked for rock-bottom prices (your ‘friend’ quoted much less than you!) While non-profits and churches would say that they don’t have a budget, individuals have used the ‘it will get you referrals’ or ‘it will be good for your portfolio’ line.

Nothing wrong in doing free work especially if it is for a cause you feel close to or passionate about or if you have extra time for a close friend or family member. But there are problems for both the designer and the client that we tend to overlook. Been there and seen it all too many times. A few personal experiences.

Managing expectations

Paying or pro bono clients will usually expect the same level of service and support. The number of revisions a client demands normally won’t be less because it is free. You can expect some pro-bono projects actually demand more of your time than billed projects. It is not uncommon to have a client call you up over the weekend for a project review or demand that you meet them because it is the only time they are free.

Simple Website

Some clients think that because you are providing a pro bono service you will provide them with a ‘simple’ website. Simple website = 2-hour job! In the world of web design, there really aren’t simple websites. At the very least you have to conceptualise the final project, and possibly do some research. Then you have to work on domain registration and hosting issues before designing the website. Then there is the possibility of training the client on how to update the site content.

Prioritising pro bono work

When you have both paying and non-paying customer projects, who do you prioritise? Clients will expect that you will give them both ears once they call in for support. In fact, it is good customer service practice to do so. But will a designer really give high priority to a non-paying client? It depends on the client I guess.

The same could also be true for the client. Where there is no attached value, some pro bono clients may not see the need to prioritise providing feedback or information. While the designer may want to deal with the project quickly to get back to paying clients, the client will simply drag their feet. After all, they have other more important projects that they have actually put their money on!

Quality of pro bono work

Now, if either side or both sides are not prioritising the project, do you expect a quality product? Yep, your guess is as good as mine. Designers will normally work on delivering a stellar product if they know that they are going to be paid for their hard work. The end result is a happy customer who is likely to give the designer more work or refer him to others.

Post-completion support

Websites are not a once-off project. Websites need to be kept secure. The content needs to be updated. Domains and hosting need to be renewed. It is normally the expectation of the client that these will be taken care of by the designer. On the other hand, the designer has been worn out by the hassles and cost of getting the website up and running they are no longer interested in even the mention of the client.


All designers love a good referral! In my early days, I almost expected any client to put in a good word to others about me. It doesn’t always happen and if it does, sometimes it doesn’t come out right. To make things slightly worse, if your client tells others that their designer did pro-bono work, you should almost expect these prospective clients to want free work too.

So what is the solution?

The best solution is to pay for creative design projects. While web design, or any creative design project, can be costly, certain designers can compromise on the cost rather than doing the whole project for free. Certain costs have to be met by the client because the designer can’t bear them all. Someone setting aside a few hours, days or weeks is a huge sacrifice.

Once organisations and individuals realise how much of an investment a website is, they will appreciate that a cost has to be attached. When a client attaches a cost, they will attach a value. Once something has value, there are most likely going to be priorities set and deadlines adhered to.

Websites are an excellent resource for businesses, organisations and individuals when done correctly. They anchor all your online marketing efforts. They are a great tool for customer service and work for you every day of the year. If you think of them like that, you will realise the importance of getting the development process done right!