By Clare Ultimo

First published in "Tips, Trends and Technology", a column in "Diem"; Journal of the BDA (Broadcast Design Association); July/August 1994

Many non-profit organizations seem like they'd be fun to work for, and many are. The "up" side of working for a non-profit is the knowledge that you are using your talent to do good in your community. While this is the positive motivating factor, there's a very distinct "down" side as well. Many non-profits simply do not have the budget to pay your regular fees. Many are understaffed, so that the person(s) in charge of your project may be terribly overloaded already, or worse yet, have no experience in buying design services at all. This doesn't necessarily mean you will be walking into a disaster, but here are a few things I've learned that may save you some angst in your pro-bono adventure.

Time Is Money, Part I
Each non-profit client will be different in terms of payment. You may have to discount your regular fees in some cases, or you may be willing to do the project for expenses only. It is also entirely possible that your non-profit will have a decent budget for your work, (god bless them!) so the money issue will be non-existent. More then likely though, this project won't be a terribly profitable one, so there are only two reasons why you will want to do it:

  1. You love the organization and simply want to help out. (A very good reason, and one that can carry you a long way)
  2. You know that you can design something wonderful for them and your work will not suffer from the constant "meddling" and revisions that paying clients can put us through regularly. i.e., you feel they respect your abilities and will defer to you in terms of design and production. The point being that you feel this project will make a very nice addition to your portfolio

You will find that if either of those two reasons becomes untrue as you progress, the project will become much less enjoyable for you or your staff. If this happens, you probably will not be able to justify it in light of the fees you will receive. Remember your reasons for doing the project going in, and make those reasons clear to whomever you are dealing with (in the most gracious way possible, of course)!

Time Is Money, Part II
Don't kid yourself in terms of the time you'll spend on the project. You may have to do a lot more back-end work to make up for the non-profit's possible lack of people resources. And if your work must pass through the approval of a Board of Directors, you may have to do many more rounds of revisions than you ever imagined. Get all that information before you begin, so you know what to expect. As it is, you'll be doing it when you're not busy with your regular paying clients, so be careful about the deadlines you promise to keep.

The Dotted Line
Put everything in writing and get signatures. Submit an estimate with clear contingencies, as well as a project brief and a schedule. If everyone is clear before a project begins, you can assume that it will only be half as difficult when everything changes in mid-stream (as it so often does).

Outline your services as carefully as possible. How many initial designs will you submit and how many revisions are you prepared to make with that fee? If you have to supervise a vendor (such as press supervision) make sure you are allowing for that time, or are at least aware of it before you begin.

Make sure you are clear about your fees. Have you agreed to donate your services but pass along receipts of expenses? (You'd better make sure you have every receipt.) Have you agreed to discount your fees? What is the discount? Is there an agreed-upon markup on expenses or is the organization paying them directly? Be careful if you're using your own suppliers in the event that the organization decides not to pay, or pays late. It may be a loss of control in some respects, but it may be better to use their printer or supplier for production, since you won't have to be the middle man between the non-profit and your supplier, especially when they want to get paid.

Getting Paid
Find out where the money is coming from for your project. If it's from projected donations, you may not get paid at all. If it's from a pre-planned, allotted budget, don't expect to get paid for your overages unless the client has agreed ahead of time. As in any "regular" project, get your fees or expense in segments as the project proceeds, and try to get the balance of production fees upon delivery.

Getting The OK
As in any project, it's a good idea to find out who has the final design approval. If you are not dealing with that person directly, try to meet and speak to them at least once, early in the process. If it's a Board of Directors, try to get some kind of written direction, or meet with them before you begin. If you end up in a meeting like this, write stuff down verbatim if you can. That way, you can submit it or pass it out at the next meeting, when you present your comprehensives, etc. (Their memories may be very short!) The bottom line is, if you thought big corporations have complicated approval processes, you have yet to meet the legendary approval processes of non-profits!

Future Use
Make sure you understand the future use of your work. Don't be surprised if that logo turns up (poorly) in a print version on t-shirts or a poster six months later. Copyright is misunderstood by almost everyone, so be extra careful when you work pro-bono. If you want to "donate" your work for future use, make sure both you and your client are clear about how the work will be used. This doesn't mean they will use it that way when you're not around, either...but it does mean you made a focused attempt to direct them ahead of time.

Rejection - Deal With It!
Don't get the idea that because you are donating the design, the client will just accept what you give him/her. Doing pro-bono work does not always mean you can do your best stuff, so please don't be under the delusion that you will get to be a design stud if you give your work away. The torturous statement holds true even in the world of the non-profit: EVERYONE IS A DESIGNER. You can choose to withdraw your work if you see it's becoming a tragic mess, or you can go along with the tragedy, as many do. No matter what, please don't demoralize yourself in the attempt to do good. If it feels like your being disrespected, it may not be worth it. There will be other opportunities, so take heart, and chalk it up to experience.

Do It Yourself
Finally, take the opportunity if it's given to you - with a clear understanding of the difficulties. There's always something valuable to learn. And who knows, you just might make the difference you're hoping to make, which would be a wonderful reward in the end.
- 2004