Understanding the Marketing Value of Pro Bono Work

Do you do pro bono or “low bono” work for non-profits? Many, if not all, creative firms do at one time or another. Designers and ad agencies will create identities or marketing materials for free, and architects will do work that, while usually not free, is certainly far from profitable. Firms that engage in this are typically doing it for some combination of the following four reasons:

      • They like the organization’s mission or feel a duty to “give something back” to the community.
      • They want to get invited to interesting parties and get some recognition for their philanthropy.
      • It can yield some attractive pieces for the portfolio.
      • They think it will directly lead to additional (paying) work.

In my experience, and in the experience of others I have talked to about this, items one through three are great reasons to do free work, but number four… not so much.

The problem is that most of the people you encounter through your work on these pro bono projects are typically going to view you first as a firm that provides free work to non-profits. The volunteer board members of the organization may really like what you’ve done, but unfortunately, they probably won’t recommend you to the marketing department at their day job. Instead, they’ll rave about you to other non-profits where they are a board member.

And the people who call the client and ask who did their great website or brochure or headquarters interior probably aren’t going to be potentially lucrative client prospects. They are going to be other non-profits looking for free work. Sure, the local business press likes stories about designers doing free work for non-profits, which is nice recognition, but the calls generated by that kind of mention? That’s right, more non-profits.

Just because the only inbound calls generated by free work are inquiries about more free work, however, doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have any marketing value. It just means that you can’t do the project and then wait for the phone to ring. You need to be smart about how you approach the work, and how you promote it once it’s done.

Here are a few suggestions:

Take advantage of the opportunity to something fresh.

One of the advantages of not getting paid is that you have a little more creative freedom. Use this freedom to do something that wins awards and gets published. Of course, the fact that you have the leverage to get the client to leave their comfort zone doesn’t mean that you have the right to force a bad idea on them. After all, no one wins if you do something just because you think it will win awards, and it ends up not meeting the organization’s needs.

Don’t cut corners.

When you’re not getting paid, it’s tempting to try and do things on the cheap or lose steam before the project is finished. If you end up with something you’re not proud of, however, it was all a waste of time, so make sure to expend the needed time and resources and see the project through to the end to ensure a portfolio-worthy finished product.

Promote the work heavily in your marketing materials.

I know that I said that pro bono work generally attracts other pro bono clients, but that doesn’t apply if the work is presented as part of a broader portfolio that also includes for-profit client projects. In fact, this should be an opportunity to showcase your ability to do unique, innovative work. (See Point 1, above.)

Use the client as a reference.

You wouldn’t want all of your references to be non-profits, but having a few in the mix won’t hurt, and someone who you worked for gratis is very likely to say great things about you.

Leverage relationships with the organization.

I mentioned above that the organization’s volunteer board members might not make the connection between your firm and the needs of their own businesses. That shouldn’t stop you from helping them make that connection if the opportunity arises, however. Remember that they probably feel a certain amount of gratitude for your contribution, and will at least be willing to introduce to the right people in their organization.

And if your pro bono project is big enough, or if your work is ongoing, you may even be able to parlay it into a board position for yourself, which makes those conversations even easier.

Ultimately, pro bono work should be about helping worthwhile organizations, and not about the marketing value that you can wring out of it. Hopefully though, getting something out of these projects will enable you to do them more frequently and on a larger scale, which benefits everyone. So keep doing as much free work as you can afford, get the recognition you deserve, and enjoy those parties.

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