Taking Advantage: How to Work Pro-Bono for Fun and Profit

February 06, 2007

Posted in Small Business.

I have worked with a wide range of non-profits, from the very small to the very big. These are organizations (especially the small ones) that often have little or no money to pay for your services, yet need the help of someone with your talents. It’s not hard to find them.

You may be asked to work pro bono.

Quick definition: “done for the public good without compensation.”

There are great reasons to do pro bono work for non-profits. You can pad your portfolio. You can give back to your community. You can develop quality relationships that pay off down the road. It’s a great chance to try new things and push your skills without risking a big budget project.

While it sounds great on the surface, there are major problems with working for free (aside from not getting paid for your time).


  • Portfolio
  • Networking
  • Skills development – try new things
  • Altruism – you’re doing a good thing, achieving a higher purpose

Special Note

Taxes. You can’t get a tax benefit for donating your time. You can only deduct any out of pocket expenses. Ask any qualified accountant for advice. They’ll all tell you that you can’t save on your taxes by donating time.


There are a lot of risks that go with giving your time away. Let’s go through these one by one.

Free means no value.

When people get something for free, they tend to treat it as if it has little value. When they’re paying an expensive consultant, they listen up because it’s going to cost them a ton. But because you’re donating your time, your client may take you for granted. There are a few ways to overcome this.

  1. Donate only what it will take to do the job. When you agree to accept a pro bono project, quote it out as you would any paying project. Once you know how much time/money it would take for a normal client, donate that much for the project. If you want to pad an extra 10% to account for overruns, that’s fine. The point is to set a limit to your commitment.
  2. Invoice the client as you normally would, but zero things out. If you’re donating $10,000 of your time, track your time (as usual) and bill against the total. This helps you with your own accountability, too. That way you don’t end up over-involved.
  3. Finish up strong. At the end of the project, deliver an invoice that lays out how much you donated. This reinforces the value you provided, and creates an endpoint for your project. If they need additional help, you have an opportunity to re-negotiate the terms of the arrangement.

Once you start, you can’t stop

It’s easy to get sucked in. Many of these organizations are in desperate need of top talent. They do such great things that you have hard time saying no.

It’s just business. If you have to walk away, it should be a polite “I’m sorry, but my business simply can’t afford to continue donating this much time.” There are thousands of non-profits that tug at your heart strings. That’s how they raise money. Approach the relationship as a partner and you can maintain a more professional perspective.

There is no future paycheck coming!

Be careful about the old carrot-and-stick routine. Some clients may try to get free service now by suggesting there will be money down the road. Sometimes there’s the possibility of work with related groups. Or that they’re just waiting on a big influx of cash before they can pay you back later.

The money isn’t coming. Even if money does come in later or there are projects, they likely can’t promise these things to you. If they’re tight on money, there are always other bills that take precedence. You should only agree to take a project if you’re willing to do it for free. If more comes out of it later, that’s great. But chances are, you have to be happy with the pro bono arrangement from the beginning.

Put it Together

The next time you have an opportunity to work with a not-for-profit, give it a serious chance. But remember that you’re trying to build your own business as well. Manage your project like any normal project, and don’t let yourself get too personally attached. You’ll find it’s possible to do a good thing for free and still come out on top.


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