Hiring A Designer Pro Bono

People ask me all the time how to approach designers (or other knowledge workers) for pro bono work.

The first thing I always say is to remember that pro bono doesn't mean free, it means for the public good. You're asking for a contribution of time and energy to improve the human condition.

Don't Go For the Broke Angle

The best way to attract a quality designer to a project is to approach them, share the story of your project and what you're working on, and ask them for pro bono support.

Choose someone whose values align with your own so that they're doing work that they agree with.

Understand that people are constantly soliciting creative folks and asking for free stuff. The usual lines all apply here:

"Do it for exposure!"

"Do it to get something in your portfolio!"

"Do it for free because we're a non-profit and we're broke!"

None of these is valid framing for a pro bono request.

Wave after wave of requests tends to wear down a person's willingness to help. It can be hard to discern pro bono requests from spec requests. Spec is when someone asks for free work on speculation of future payment. It is making something good today, and if the client likes it, they may chose to pay for it later.

You've seen this all over the place: logo contents, crowdsourcing, et al—these things are ethically dubious for a whole host of reasons. Google "spec work" and read more so that you can define your request in terms that don't set off the No Spec alarms.

I'd say your goal is to steer for a pro bono relationship that avoids any characteristics of spec work. One way to do this is to accept constraints on your own behavior. Those constraints are:

  • a contract relationship defined in a document
  • the document defines a scope
  • the document outlines the money changing hands (though it will be a fraction of the market worth of the services provided, money should change hands.)

How to get started?

  1. Create a shortlist of local designers whose work you admire. A good way to start is to look at cool local stuff you like, then find out who did it. Create a second shortlist of designers whose values you think may align with your own. Compare the lists. Finding a designer who shares your values is often more important than their ability. The opposite arrangement rarely works out well for either party.

  2. Determine how much you can spend, no matter how small. As a quick point of reference, a legit brand project with appropriate research, rounds of work, and a solid brand standard for a startup ranges between $10,000-$50,000, depending on the experience of the designer. If you need to raise funds to have a small seed fund here, you do it. Even with the requisite passion in place, a for pro bono project you must pay some amount, no matter how small.
    Using the example brand project above, $2,000-$5,000 in pro bono payment would be a good range to shoot for and plan on. Remember, this is compensation for hundreds of hours of skilled work.

  3. You'll do a contract, and you'll have things you need to commit to in that contract:

    • investing your time
    • making meetings as scheduled
    • showing up to things
    • helping your designer get the materials they need
    • providing timely feedback
    • honoring the payment schedule
    • in general you'll just take it seriously
  4. Knowing that the person you're working with is a professional who is making a real investment in you, you let them do their full process and your engage them fully. Act just like you would if you'd actually paid $50,000 for the service. I'm a big fan of doing it this way because it helps everyone take the project seriously and it shows your respect for the designer's process. My shorthand rule: Pick a designer who is so talented and professional, you're a bit intimidated. If you've never bought professional design services before, AIGA's Client's Guide to Design has some excellent particulars to read up on.

  5. Go deep, and share your whole story with the designer. Who you are, why you're doing this work, how it helps the community or the world, what you hope to achieve—everything. If you act like the project is a work-for-hire situation, you're shortchanging yourself and disrespecting your colleague who is giving you their work and time at a big discount. Spend quality time together, talk about why you're doing this project, discuss the work you be doing also. For example, if this was a 501(c)3 to support urban farmers, take your designer to a farm and meet a farmer. If you're going to be fighting for women's rights or for LGBTQ rights, bring your designer with you to some meetings and conversations with the organization or its constituents so that they get a real sense of the people and the stakes involved. This is also a good indicator of finding the right person—does your designer care to know these things? If not, they may not be the right fit, especially for a passion project.

  6. Let your designer run free on the project, commensurate with their skill level. You're going to engage them for real design research so the project must rely on true findings, not personal taste. Beyond that, I'd give your designer room to run. Don't micromanage and don't treat the project like a manufacturing output. As my friend Matt Muñoz always points out, "…good design is the result of form with intent"—there must be a form in the end, but there is also interpretation and artistry in the uncovering and shaping of that form. When you let them pursue their own interests while serving your needs, you'll get better work. When I work with younger designers, I give them more "guides and guardrails" than I do for the experienced professional. For the pros, hand them the keys and let them run.

  7. Ask your designer for invoices that show the full value of the work with a bottom line Pro Bono entry that deducts 90% of the fee (or whatever the deduction is.) This is a reminder to you and to your designer about what you've received. If you're a 501(c)3, explore designating the discounted amount as a donation to charity.

  8. Decide how you're going to publicly honor and recognize your pro bono partnership . Some possible ideas:

    • a public blog post about the process and what you learned
    • add the designer/firm to the logo farm of sponsors/donors/allies/partners at the bottom of your site
    • press release which includes the designer's name and a link to their web location of choice
    • social media shout outs and recognition

Finally, send your pro bono designer leads for paid work whenever you can, now and forever. You owe them now, so you've got to pay that forward. If the designer feels like their contribution mattered, they'll be ready when you come back to them with other big ideas. Over time, it is your job to ensure that your ability to pay and promote them increases as you go.

Those are my take on it—but there are others who have really fleshed out their approach to pro bono design work.

My friend Dawn Hancock has a firm in Chicago called Firebelly Design—they formalized their pro bono work like this: after a lengthy application process, they select one pro bono client per year who is added to their project roster just like an all-paid, normal client. Their program is called Grant for Good, and I suggest checking it out for another look at how designers have set the terms and working relationship that is most beneficial to providing their services pro bono.

Good luck with your project, and kudos to you in advance for stopping to consider the best way to approach a design professional about pro bono work before you make the ask. ;)


Image taken from page 28 of Lamia ... With illustrative designs by Will H. Low, provided by The British Library.

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