08 November 2006
Kelvin Browne
Kelvin Browne

Designers and charities can both benefit from pro bono work.

Directly translated, pro bono means for the public good. What it means in reality, however, is that designers donate their services or charge significantly reduced rates to support good causes. Pro bono creative is central to the existence of numerous not-for-profit and philanthropic organizations-without it, many arts groups and charities wouldn't be able to raise necessary funds to keep their good work going.

There are many valid reasons to do pro bono work. In some cases, it presents an opportunity to experiment and show different aspects of a designer's capability. For Dave Coates of Ion Design in Vancouver, work for the theatre group Shameless Hussies involves not only the design of posters and promotional materials-the types of things the design firm does on a daily basis-but also set and costume design.

Second, pro bono work can facilitate some formidable connections. "It's a way to network," says Michael Dangelmaier of Karo Calgary. "Charities often have boards of directors drawn from senior levels of business. Work done pro bono is often a good demonstration of our capabilities for them."

And, perhaps most importantly, it just feels good to give back and really make a difference to a worthy cause. "It isn't just about design, it's about helping organizations communicate with their stakeholders," says Elena Rivera of the Vancouver-based Rivera Design Group. "And creative freedom is icing on the cake." Thankfully, pro bono usually also translates as good collaboration: charities reach the people they need to in an effective way, and designers produce what they consider exemplary, signature work.

Unfortunately, however, not all pro bono projects go that smoothly. ("You get what you pay for," is how one disgruntled designer describes his experiences). Being coerced by an important client to do work for the client's favorite charity is not an auspicious beginning for pro bono work. Friction increases when the charity gives the designer little creative freedom, is inconsiderate with the use of his or her time, and is just plain ungrateful about donated efforts.

On the other side of the coin, some designers assume that donating work means that they can be cavalier with timing, production estimates or quality control. Or that they can ignore a client's concerns for relevance to its brand, appropriateness to target markets, advertising impact or simple readability. Inexperienced designers may think they can ignore the client when they're doing work pro bono. Wrong.

So how do you ensure a good experience? An important first step is to decide which charities and organizations you want to support and why. The kind of pro bono work a company decides to do can have long-term implications. Just a corporation's brand can be shaped by the kinds of sponsorships and donations it makes, so can a design firm's profile be influenced by the kind of pro bono work it accepts-especially since a lot of pro bono work involves high-profile fund-raising activities. Some design firms make their decisions about pro bono on a company-wide basis. Robert L. Peters of Circle in Winnipeg stresses the collective nature of the firm's pro bono work: his eight-person office must reach a consensus on the projects they take on. For instance, everyone in his office feels passionately about Victims' Voice, an organization that supports the survivors of people who have been murdered. "It's important that we all agree; we become advocates for the organizations we do pro bono work for."

And it's important to devise a method to determine how much pro bono your office is going to do, as well. Let's face it, there are a lot of worthy causes out there, and it's tempting to take on more than is financially prudent. When her accountant asked her to sit down and total up the amount of pro bono work her firm had done in 1998, Catherine Bradbury of Bradbury Design in Regina was taken aback. "We always give our pro bono clients an estimate of what the fees would have been, just so they're aware of the value," she says. "It ended up that we did about $30,000 of pro bono work in 1998, and the same for the year before. If we were a really large company with a lot of fat, it would be different. But we're six people in total. It's a sizable chunk."

That realization caused her to take a look at who they're helping out, and why. "It's hard to say no, and I tend to be a bit too generous. It's not that we're regretted the work we've done, but we just have to take a more prudent look at it." They're currently devising a plan to be more selective; it may mean picking only four projects a year (one in each season), or asking potential clients to write down a detailed description of what's required. And Bradbury will make sure both parties are clear on what they want to get out of the experience.

Since design firms invest considerable time in pro bono work, it's reasonable to consider it an important business decision. "We do pro bono work in the arts community because of its obvious connection to the creative business we're in," says Bev Tudhope of Tudhope Associates in Toronto, which has donated work to causes including Opera Atelier and Art with Heart, an art auction to benefit the Home Hospice Program run by Toronto's Casey House. "If you focus your pro bono stuff in a certain area, it gives you a valid reason to say no when you get asked to do other kinds of projects you really don't want to do."

Indeed, it's easier to say no when it's a policy decision rather than a specific rejection of an individual's worthy cause. And it is important to say no. If you don't, you'll do too much and limit the enjoyment from the projects you'd otherwise relish.

Whatever the reason you takes on a pro bono project, there is only one way to do it after you accept. As Paul Haslip of HM in Toronto says, "Once we've decided to do pro bono work, we treat the project as carefully as any other in the office." On the flipside, it's important that clients not take a design firm for granted, once they've agreed to come on board. "We've had good experience with pro bono work," says Susan Mullin, executive director of the Casey House Foundation. "We always attempt to make it very clear at the beginning of a project what we understand is being donated and on what terms."

Charities are always looking for ways to do things inexpensively and maximize the profit for their enterprise. And this has design implications. Designers often have only one or two colors and less than wonderful production values to work with. And you can end up canvassing printers and paper suppliers for donations. "Sometimes pro bono work is modest," says Tom Howlett of The Farm in Toronto. "Often the design has to be considered in the context of minimal production budgets. While you always want to show what you're capable of, you have to start with an assessment of what the client really needs. Even when it's free it's about them, not you."

And the mechanics of direct mail and advertising are a significant hurdle for some designers to get over. Designers unfamiliar with the basics of fundraising should have their pro bono client explain the fundamentals to them before they express strong opinions about how fundraising material should be designed. A designer's dream of creative pro bono freedom can be severely limited by the reality of what gets the best response when you send out 50,000 flyers requesting donations.

In the end, is it worth it? When the piece achieves its objective and both parties are happy with the results, the answer is a resounding yes. Tudhope Associates' work for Art with Heart-an annual art auction whose proceeds go to Casey House-is a case in point: "We did an absolutely professional-looking catalogue for them this year, along with posters and other collateral material," says Bev Tudhope. "And the auction made more than $250,000, which was mindblowing. The executive director said she felt that the increasing quality of the promotional material has directly contributed to the success of the event-this year it looked so professional that it brought out a better crowd, and people took it more seriously. She was thrilled. And so were we. The stuff did what it was supposed to. It really worked." 

Tips on making pro bono pleasant

For the designer:
1. Don't feel obligated to say "yes" to everything. Have a process for deciding what your firm takes on, even if it's as simple as everyone in your company agreeing that it is important. Try to find pro bono projects for organization and causes you believe in, that also have outstanding creative or future business potential. Question the value of any client who coerces you to do something for free.Make sure you understand the client's expectations upfront, including how many pieces you are creating, the timing and all cost implications. Good pro bono clients pay for presentation materials, couriers, and are very careful with disbursements. If there are tax receipt implications, get them clarified before you begin.
2. Make the client aware of your creative expectations before you agree to do a project. ( "Our approach to this likely would be...") By the same token, insist that your pro bono clients reveal all the creative restrictions inherent in their projects, including the dreaded, "We want it to look like it did last year."
3. If other suppliers are involved, such as photographers or illustrators, make sure they understand the timing and cost parameters. Don't force your suppliers to do favors for you.
4. Once you've taken on a pro bono project, treat it with the same care as any other in our office. Free or not, your company's reputation rests on how you do every job.

For the client:
1. No designer owes you anything. Don't expect favors. While it's a tacky practice, if you must dangle the carrot of subsequent paying work, be completely confident about delivering on it.
2. If the designers are doing you a favor, keep this in mind as you work with them. Don't keep them waiting for meetings, miss deadlines, or make endless revisions.
3. Make all your expectations clear at the outset of the project. By the same token, expect that if a designer agrees to do your project, he or she will be diligent about meeting deadlines.
4. Understand that serious designers will be making their best efforts to produce exceptional materials for you. Learn to enjoy leading edge creativity. Open up to the new possibilities of communicating your message. That said, don't be surprised when a design firm takes a conservative approach if their portfolio is full of classic examples of print. In other words, don't expect firms do things that are unnatural for them.
5. Say thank you. Say it in person, at events, and in print. You can't say it too often, including to the people back in the studio who spend hours in front of a computer screen and ensure your project is perfect.

About this article

The above article by Kelvin Browne is reprinted from Applied Arts Magazine, with permission. 1999 by Applied Arts Inc.