Yes, I am pro bono


(…a cheesy play on words, I know, but I do love U2)   

This month, the Business of Design Online has been discussing the value of working pro bono for design professionals. The most recent post outlined these top benefits for designers:

  • self-promotion
  • networking opportunities
  • portfolio puffing
  • experience
  • “the warm and fuzzies”

Okay so being the rosy-spectacled, hopeless idealist that I am, I was a little disappointed to see no truly altruistic motivations. No “because it’s the right thing to do” justification. But I understand – and not just because I live in capitalist America. Generating a good reputation is important – especially for the self-employed. Pro bono work appears to provide an excellent opportunity to do so.

I hadn’t thought about it this way before, but the work I do for Ballet Fantastique could qualify as pro bono, with a few tweaks. According to Thomas Stephan in his post “Don’t Work For Free Ever Again” the difference between volunteering and working pro bono lies somewhere in performing professional services, within the parameters of a previously agreed upon contract, but waiving the traditional financial compensation. With my work for Ballet Fantastique (where I started as an intern), I haven’t used contracts or developed complicated strategic plans, so Stephan would likely classify my work as volunteerism. 

Working for non-profits and charities has always been something important to me, but not really for any of the above-mentioned reasons. I’ve just felt responsible to use my talents to benefit others. I do believe, however, that it will be important to protect myself as a professional and to make informed, intelligent, mutually-beneficial decisions when considering offering my services pro bono; and to create clear, well-defined guidelines for working with such clients.

Just the other day I was wondering how professionals decide when and for whom to work pro bono, and what sorts of ethical questions arise surrounding these choices. How do you decide whom to charge and whom to not? Are there any regulations on this, either within industry bodies or professional organizations? Please, let me know if anyone has experience here. 

Image courtesy of


    2 Responses so far »

    1. 1

      Tom Stephan said,

      Hi Emily;

      First I have to say that I’m honored at your response. Nice to know I’m being read, especially in the Pacific Northwest, which is close to my heart and many friends.

      It’s nice to see that you’ve undertaken some pro bono work already (and yes, I consider your work pro bono). I think it’s great that you’ve got a clear head on your shoulders about the altruistic nature of pro bono; for me, pro bono work should always have an altruistic element – the heart of a project is what keeps it alive. By no means is my mind all clockwork and ratchets.

      That you do your pro bono work free of contracts is your choice, and if you’ve got an excellent, well-defined work relationship with your clients, then you’re safe and sound. However – I think it’s important, even necessary, to consider a contract for every job you do, because it protects all involved. Even a simple contract outline helps you avoid the dreaded ‘Camel in the Tent’ syndrome: your client slowly absorbs every waking moment of your day until you’re forced to break free and create a rift. Robert Frost got it right – Good fences make good neighbors!

      Anyway, thanks again, and you’ve inspired me to elaborate on my theories and ideas. Good fortune on you and all your efforts!

      Tom Stephan

    2. 2

      emilytormey said,

      Thanks so much for visiting my little blog! I completely agree that having a contract in place is a really smart idea so that BOTH parties get what they expect out of the agreement. It protects you, but it also protects the client as well. Win-win! I will definitely keep your advice in mind as I explore my career possibilities. Thanks again for taking interest in my blog.


    Comment RSS · TrackBack URI

    Leave a Reply

    Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

    You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

    Google photo

    You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

    Twitter picture

    You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

    Facebook photo

    You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

    Connecting to %s

    %d bloggers like this: