I make a point of doing regular pro bono work for a number of businesses and organizations. Some of it’s purely voluntary because it’s the right thing to do, while some of my efforts are at least partially motivated by a desire to further my business prospects.
While I’d like to claim my motivations are 100% altruistic all of the time, that wouldn’t be the truth. Sure, I’m more than happy to donate time and resources and plain old “sweat and labor” for causes that are near and dear, but when businesses look to me for pro bono work or deep discounts, I have to look at the opportunity from a strategic standpoint.
- Does the business or organization operate in a field related to my target audience?
- Is the company growing or slowing?
- What’s my potential return on investment?
- Is it reasonable for me to expect referral or networking opportunities to come out of the association?
- Will I be able to get a case study out of the experience or add to my resume?
- Will the company be easy to work with?
- Will the company appreciate the work and the value they receive from me?
A WIN-WIN SITUATION
In my experience, pro bono work can be a win-win situation. The receiving organization gets incredible value—sometimes tens of thousands of dollars of value for nothing or pennies on the dollar—and I get to be involved in some incredible projects and work with some amazing people, such as the San Diego Chapter of the Huntington Disease Society of America and San Diego Sports Innovators.
WHERE IT CAN GO WRONG
Where it can go all wrong is when the relationship becomes heavily one-sided to the point where the recipient of all your efforts has no concept of what an entrepreneur or small business owner does and doesn’t understand (or isn’t willing to understand) that while all of your contributed hours aren’t being billed for, you still have bills to pay and you still have a team to lead and keep motivated even when they’re not getting paid. The receiving organization just seems content to ask for more and more without an appreciation for what you do and what you hope—what you need—to get out of the relationship. It’s becomes all about them.
Communication is the key to building any long-term relationships, whether there’s money involved or whether the work is being done pro bono, coupled with respect.
YOUR EXPECTATIONS AND THEIRS
When you agree to do pro bono or discounted work, you should expect to commit to the project 100% and bring all of your leadership skills, experience, and expertise to bear on the project—not to mention the collective talents of you and your team (if you have one). If you say you are going to do something, do it.
In return, you should expect your “client” to understand your motivations for doing the work—there will be some altruistic reasons, no doubt, but you also have to get something out of the experience, too: referrals, networking opportunities, case studies, etc.
In addition, you should expect the “client” to . . .
- Make only reasonable demands on your time
- Run meetings efficiently
- Practice active listening so he or she is sensitive to you/your team’s level of commitment
- Make sure that you and any other volunteers have a role and know what it is
- Appreciate the work you do and your contributions.
ALL PARTIES NEED TO GET SOMETHING OUT OF THE EXPERIENCE
If a business or organization you are willing to do pro bono or deeply discounted work for can’t pay you money for your time, they should be able to pay in some other way, such as introducing you to people, exposure through networking, and letting you do the kind of work that rounds out your portfolio or resume. The success of such arrangements relies on developing a true partnership based on mutual appreciation, respect, and understanding. Once all of those elements are in place, pro bono work can be a win-win strategy for all, including the organization’s target audience (and yours).
What has your experience been with pro bono work and volunteerism? What challenges have you faced? Where have you succeeded?
Share your thoughts here.