What is Pro Bono Work and Why Should You Embrace It


Few weeks ago I wrote an article where I torn Spec work apart. There is no reason in going back and I think I should do as promised and explain why I think pro bono work is something you should do to help you build up a portfolio if you are new to the design business and to give a helping hand to different communities.

Pro bono work comes from a Latin phrase and is mostly used to describe professional work delivered voluntarily and without payment or at a highly reduced fee. Pro bono work is increasing in popularity lately in domains such as marketing, technology and yes, web design. Such a concept offers the specific skills of a professional for free to someone who is not able to afford them otherwise. The main difference between Spec work and pro bono work is that pro bono work is usually for a good cause and even if you don’t get paid, it will definitely bring you awareness and allow you to build up a portfolio and earn experience. The reason behind me preferring pro bono work instead of spec work is that it is usually for a good cause. We designers love the nature, optimistic and energetic volunteers and good causes like charity. Why not work for them and earn their respect rather than do Spec work and (most of the time) earn nothing?

We sometimes feel like helping somebody in need of our services and only ask for a trackback or a modest fee. If you really need to build up a portfolio in the beginning of your design career, doing this kind of work for non-profit organizations or charities is a win-win situation. You help them and, in exchange, you have your work online and will also feel better about yourself. It must feel better helping NGOs battling for disadvantaged children, disaster victims, people with special needs or poor people than doing work for a who-knows-who and not get paid for it, right?

Pro bono also means you have a big responsibility. It means providing fully professional results, not something done while watching your favorite show or while you wait for the train. You will not get paid for it in most cases, but you still need to be professional. Not only for the sake of your portfolio, but also for the sake of the organization you help. Only deliver designs you would normally deliver to people who would pay. I know it sounds difficult and does not make too much sense – why would you submit free high-quality work instead of asking for money for it?

Well, not all of us have a reputation that every company would be glad to fill our pockets for a redesign. When you start working in the business you will understand you need experience – and how else will you get it? I have knowledge of companies looking at people’s previous work and digging for pro bono publico. Why? Because it says a lot about you. It shows your passion for this business. It shows money may be on the low end, but you will always be there for the client and will deliver high-quality work. It shows integrity. It shows just the right qualities.

All design jobs I had when I was a lot younger were pro bono or poorly paid. I mostly did it for fun and to learn. I was proud of my work. I wouldn’t be proud of it today, but back then I was thrilled to be able to deliver friends and local charities their own website. I had no problem working for free and this helped me a lot. Sure, I was not older than 15 and money issues were not pressuring me; fair enough, I give you that one. On the other side, what was in it for me if I was starting to ask for money? Just think about this yourself, would there have been any chance for a 14-year-old without a bit of experience in the business?

Image by mrszooropa.

Is pro bono equal to volunteerism?

Many think so. I doubt it, however. I also volunteer in my spare time and it is quite different from undertaking pro bono work. The main difference is that while volunteerism means providing something for free, pro bono means acting as a professional, having client meetings, providing drafts, changing, providing another draft, changing again, getting the green light and so on. It is like in the real world. Pro bono is a playground for the real business. It is where we experiment with our techniques and skills. It is where we act as professionals although we are not paid – we only do it because of our desire to help.

Pro bono involves getting familiar with the client, the community you will provide for, their volunteers and their needs. Pro bono for a local charity means getting involved.

Image by twestival.

Another difference between pro bono and volunteerism is that pro bono leads sometimes to paid work. If the local charity will need a poster, a more professional website or an advertising campaign and will have money for it, whom do you think they will turn to first?

How to choose?

It depends a lot on the area where you live. There are a lot more charities in Chicago then in a small city outside of the Ukraine capital Kiev. But providing you live in an area with lots of them, choosing a local charity or a non-profit organization to do some pro bono for might be tricky.

I heard lots of opinions about doing pro bono from more experienced designers and developers. I think there should be several reasons behind doing it, not only one. You should not only do pro bono in order to improve your portfolio and your skills, because let’s face it, all of us like to help. This is a good way to show your support and make a charitable contribution. If you find at least one of these reasons being enough for you, then you should undertake pro bono work. Why we do it is not as important – charities and organizations will appreciate our help anyway.

The search for a suitable organization might be long. Try to choose something that fits you, something that you like. If you like dogs, you will most likely be more excited about doing a website for an animal shelter than for an Elderly Home. Keep in mind that money is out of this equation and the only thing that can make you run and keep you still wanting to help is working for a cause which is close to you. Your main goal is to find a charity or an organization whose agenda and goals match your own. You need to feel passionate about a group’s cause in order to do professional pro bono for them.

Another thing you should remember is that many of these organizations already have their own websites on the internet, therefore think of upgrades, tweaks and redesigns instead of new web pages.

Another piece of advice would be to start locally. I say this because getting in contact with volunteers and clients will be much easier if they are located 10 minutes from your home, than if they are placed somewhere 10 hours away. Also, don’t forget that larger organizations probably have lots of sponsors and already own a website or have what they already need.

Image by sarah_dr.

Finding the right client should take some time, but it shouldn’t be a tremendous effort. You can start looking for the following:

  • Religious organizations or churches
  • Adoption agencies
  • Community projects
  • Community theaters and playhouses
  • Public school projects
  • Private and public after-school programs
  • Academic organizations
  • Political organizations
  • Food banks and other aid distribution organizations
  • Disease research groups

This is a just a list out off the top of my head. There should be many more out there and a simple Google search will probably reveal hundreds or thousands more from you to choose from.

What’s in for you?

Besides the things we already talked about, there is something else for you as well in pro bono work. Besides polishing your skills and padding your portfolio, earning some promotion is also on the table. Because there is nothing else they can offer, many NGOs will allow you to post a link of your portfolio on their website. They also have large networks and as said earlier, pro bono might result in paid work for you somewhere in the future. And not only the organizations have a network, but also the volunteers and people involved. Imagine what kind of viral marketing you can get from a group of 500 people in your small city.

Bottom line

So yes folks, this is why I think you should embrace pro bono instead of Spec work. If you read both my articles it should be more than enough to convince you that doing something for a specific community is worth much more than doing something for an unknown person that is highly unlikely to pay you.

Until next time… what do you think about pro bono? Is there a clear difference between it and Spec work or you still consider both as being under the same umbrella? Have you ever undertaken pro bono work?



  1. maria

    Great article!

    I only want to add from experience that when you choose who to devote your time to for free, make sure this person/organisation knows the value of it.

  2. Kale

    Christian you always have some great tips. I also have done some free work as an Internet marketing and social media consultant. Not exactly pro bono, but helping with a friend running for a political office where I live. Helped quite a bit actually as I networked and got great referrals to some awesome local businesses. It can be a shoe-in to other gigs, which makes doing a good cause that much better.