Pro Bono and Free Services: Is It Possible To Give Too Much?
Last Thursday I was taking part in a weekly discussion among designers called DCTH (Design Community Twitter Hours) and this question came up: When do you draw the line between pro-bono & just helping for free? A very interesting discussion followed and it got me thinking about my own experience with offering my design and web services pro bono or for free. In this post I want to share some of those experiences with you and how they have influenced my business approach as well as the impact this has had when I began applying it to my social media interaction.
As the discussion progressed it became obvious that many designers, including myself, have gotten burned in the past by offering free, discounted or pro bono services. Because of these abuses the general response was to avoid doing free work altogether, and pro bono only in the case of a cause you believe in supporting or for the tax benefits. While I completely understand the concerns, and I have had instances where my generosity has been taken advantage of, I was distraught to think about the cynicism that our self-serving society is breeding. Is it not better to give and give and then give some more, even when some take advantage of it, rather than discontinue giving altogether? I believe it is, and my experience supports this theory.
When I first started designing websites I was doing it on the side for a little spare money. But I was also offering my services to small churches in an effort to provide for them something that most could not afford. At the time I was working as a Pastor, and I believed it would be an important “ministry” I could offer to other churches to further our universal goal or reaching the world. Whenever the opportunity arose, I would design a church’s website with the understanding that if they could not afford to pay me anything it would be my donation to their ministry. I didn’t have much money at the time and I saw this as a way I could tithe, something I believed was important.
I only designed 2-3 sites for small churches for free, and not once did I ever feel that I was taken advantage of in the process. Instead, one of the most remarkable things happened. Shortly after I finished designing one of the first church sites, a successful Christian recording artist came through town. I went to see his concert and was captivated by his music, spirit and talent. When I got home that night I went online to check out his website and was extremely disappointed to find a very poorly designed site. I decided to email him, and told him that his website was nowhere near as exciting as his music. I suggested that he allow me to redesign it to give him something that represented the dynamic personality of the artist and his music. Within a few days I had a signed contract for the redesign that resulted in over $10,000 of work for him during the next year. This was my first major client, and the lesson I walked away from that experience with has never departed from my approach to business.
Call it karma, the law of reciprocity, the provision of God, the universe, whatever you want. All I know is that I have discovered – over and over again since then – that the more I give to those who are in true need, the more it comes back to me tenfold.
Since that first experience I have had a number of clients that I have offered reduced rates or free services to, strictly because I believed they were not trying to get something for nothing but were genuinely working within a restricted budget. In those cases I made sure that I didn’t completely devalue my services, and insured that I still provided for my family on some level (the main reason I do the work I do). In every instance it was really a judgment call on my part, based on my discussions with the client. And in almost every situation the small amount of time I gave away or discounted resulted in a significantly larger paying job coming my way, directly related to the freebie or just randomly crossing my path. Either way, I have built a successful track history of giving my services away and consequently receiving much more than I have ever given.
Did I make some mistakes? Absolutely. In fact, just recently I had someone who I offered discounted services to because he assured me our “partnership” would result in a large number of referrals for future work. (Have you heard that one before?) So far I have yet to see a single referral, and as the small project progressed it didn’t take long to realize I had made a mistake, since the client continued to ask for much more work than originally agreed upon without paying anything extra. Of course, I stuck to my guns and strictly provided only what I had undercharged him for, so when all is said and done, I didn’t lose out entirely. I just did more for less money than I normally would make. Although the experience does leave a bad taste, it didn’t really have any other lasting results or impact. So even in this case I have to ask, was it really that bad? I can think of much worse.
In the past year, as I have dived into the ocean of social media, I have adapted this approach to the new context and the results have been even more amazing. While I have heard others around me saying how they have seen little or no increase in clients and business through Twitter, my own experience is radically different. Although I don’t have exact numbers, I know that I have attracted well over 20 new clients through Twitter and social media related connections. But most importantly, most of these connections have come directly from helping someone else out for little or no payment. I have helped people set up WordPress blogs, install plugins, troubleshoot problems, tweak their websites and more, and in turn these people have sent real paying clients my way. They don’t send them to me with the uinderstanding that the prospects will get free work. They send them to me because they have learned that I am a trustworthy, well-intentioned person with talents that they have experienced.
I didn’t ask them to give me anything. I didn’t offer to help under the condition that someday they would need to somehow pay me back. I just saw their need and offered to help. There is a beauty and joy in giving assistance to someone without expectation of anything in return. In most cases, I have saved them hours of frustration by doing something in 15 minutes that they had no idea how to accomplish. I looked like a hero to them, but for me it was a small amount of effort to bring a smile to their faces. Is there something wrong with this? I don’t see the down side.
Some might say that by giving away or discounting my work I am devaluing the work of others in the same field. I sure hope that is not the case as this is definitely NOT my intention. But I have to consider the possibility and be mindful of it in how I handle these situations.
Still others might say I am being far too naïve or idealistic in my approach, and it is only a matter of time until someone takes complete advantage of my generosity in a way that financially cripples my freelance business. I definitely am aware of this possibility and I want to make clear that I am not trying to tell every young freelancer to go out there and replicate my methodology. Because I have been doing this for a number of years, combined with my own life experience and understanding of people, I may have a better ability to make those judgment calls than someone younger or less experienced. So please “don’t try this at home” without some type of clear understanding of your own abilities in judging others’ personalities.
Here’s the bottom line for me: helping others can be a win for everyone involved, even if no payment ever comes my way. Helping others is a better approach to life and to business than chasing after the almighty dollar. Helping others breeds an attitude of generosity, compassion, and community unlike anything else. Helping others is, in itself, its own reward.
It is possible that opportunists will read this and try to get something for nothing from me. I’m okay with that, because most of the time I can discern the motives behind a request for assistance. Regardless, nothing will keep me from doing what I can to contribute to growing a society and community that gives unconditionally. I believe that if everyone did this our world would be a better place. What do you think?