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How to Be a Great Pro Bono Web Design Client

Lots of digital service providers — web designers and developers, SEO professionals, copy writers, branding agencies — like to give back to their communities and offer pro bono work (i.e. free services) to businesses and non-profits who may otherwise not be able to afford a professional-looking or fully-featured website with carefully crafted copy optimized for the best search results. It’s a great way to strengthen community ties and build professional networks, so it can definitely be a win-win solution.

Caveat Emptor

However, like all business transactions, a pro bono arrangement needs to be carefully defined and expectations on both sides need to be clarified at the outset to avoid misunderstandings, resentment, and time wasted for all the stakeholders. At the very least, a standard contract and scope of work need to be in place, even if there’s no monetary component to the project. In fact, I’d argue that such a project/relationship needs to have a much more clarified set of boundaries than most professional service projects. The very nature of pro bono services can involve a lot of assumptions that could cause trouble down the line.

A pro bono relationship can be a great way to strengthen community ties and build professional networks, so it can definitely be a win-win solution.

In general, I welcome the opportunity to give back and help some of my favorite non-profits (and friends) with their websites or other tech issues on a pro-bono basis. I try and bring the same professionalism that I offer to my private, higher-paying clients, and expect that the folks I work with will do the same. And yet, I find that occasionally it goes south when it’s obvious that the pro bono client devalues the service precisely because it’s being offered for free.

Value = Perception?

An article entitled “Why is it difficult to find pro bono lawyers in California?” looks at the issue as it pertains to lawyers, but many of the problems for web designers and developers are identical: “Like everything else in life, when people are given something for FREE, they hardly ever appreciate it.” The article describes a lawyer who “found herself stuck in a toxic relationship with someone who wanted everything for nothing (and with an attitude)…[who] is disrespectful, abrasive and hard to work with.”

While not so extreme, I have found myself in similar situations with organizations that, for whatever reason, were unable to fulfill the most basic requests for providing, for example, web content in usable form, or answers to simple queries about their site, and seemed to be trying to make things more difficult for me. I’m pretty sure though, that at the root of this dynamic was the particular Catch-22 of working in and with non-profits.

Non-profit Culture

Of course there are as many kinds of non-profits as there are other types of businesses: large ones with hundreds of employees and relatively cushy offices to tiny, struggling one-person operations running out of someone’s basement with zero budget. But the ones most needing pro bono services are the ones that are surely the least able to expend the time needed to create a satisfying project outcome. I once worked as a department head for a midsize non-profit media outlet; we always desperately needed volunteers, but didn’t have the staff to find, train or manage any volunteers. A vicious circle in which everyone ended up working that much harder. Burn-out was rampant, internal communication was non-existant, and most employees stalked around wearing the haunted look of someone who will never get all their work done.

Obviously, a shiny new website won’t solve deep institutional problems like overwork or dysfunction, but it can help an organization project a more put-together image to the public that may mean more and higher donations, or attract more volunteers. So, if you’re a non-profit looking to spiff up your online presence, there may be an agency or freelancer who’d love to help you out. So here are a few things to consider when working with someone who is donating their time and talent to helping you achieve success.

I assume that everyone prefers a big project like a website to be as positive and comfortable an experience as possible for everyone involved. So, here are some tips if you’re on the receiving end of a pro-bono website, or even just getting some free help on your site:

  • Don’t assume that you don’t need to be involved. Your active participation is absolutely necessary in every step of the web design and development process. Pay attention, and if you don’t understand something, ask! Don’t make your designer or developer guess. If you’re too busy, you may need to delegate someone you trust to make decisions for you. Set realistic deadlines and milestones together.
  • Don’t waste time! Meetings for the sake of meetings are frustrating for everyone. Have an agenda, and use it efficiently. Don’t call meetings for things that can be taken care of in an email.
  • Respect your designer/developer’s work hours. You may actually be volunteering yourself evenings and weekends, but chances are this is your developer’s day job. If you’re not sure, just ask. Email is great since you can each respond on your own schedule.
  • Be flexible. Your designer/developer probably has a tried-and-true system for achieving every step of the process, right through the launch. They may have project management or other software to facilitate the project; learn it, use it, and if you don’t care for it, you can ditch it at the end of the project. But you’ll be able to add it to your set of skills going forward.
  • Be polite and appreciative. I shouldn’t have to remind anyone to mind their p’s and q’s, but someone is giving you thousands of dollars worth of their time. Don’t assume that’s easy for them.
  • Be honest. Don’t pretend to understand something when it’s not really clear. It’s totally fine to ask – no one’s judging your technical chops! If you don’t like a design, say so (kindly), and be ready to explain why not. If you just can’t manage another Zoom this week, it’s probably okay to reschedule. Great communication is at least 50% of a great project outcome.
  • Refer! Offer to write a testimonial or other review after the launch. When people compliment your new website, give them the name/website of your designer (but don’t mention you got it for free!).