John Dunford: Good intentions and bad results - getting value from pro-bono projects

'No charge' is not the same as 'no cost', so think very carefully about who really benefits from offers of free work

John Dunford
John Dunford

Pro-bono projects can seem like the ideal way for charities to plug their digital skills gaps. You get to work with a talented, passionate and otherwise expensive agency or freelancer and it doesn’t cost you anything. What have you got to lose?

Well, as with everything in life, if it seems too good to be true then it usually is.

What’s behind the offer of a pro-bono project?

There are several reasons why pro-bono projects can end up costing charities and they all stem from getting into the wrong relationship. A central issue with pro-bono work is tied up in a similar Latin phrase, "cui bono?" or "who stands to benefit?"

There can be any number of reasons – from letting junior staff gain experience to corporate greenwashing – why a business that usually charges for its services could stand to gain from offering free work to charities.

Particularly within agencies, the value placed on awards is incredibly high and working on a "cause" can be seen as a short cut to success in this area.

There are of course lots of great groups out there that genuinely want to help charities. In reality, a pro-bono project will usually be driven by a combination of personal motivations and a sincere desire to want to help. There’s no harm in this mix necessarily, but it can work to undermine everyone involved.

Many charities are built on a tradition of volunteering, but in the case of digital projects with expert developers, designers or strategists there can be a very different power balance. Working to end hunger or support people with leukaemia is not straightforward and charities operate in a very different way from corporate clients.

Take away the usual governing structure of a paying customer/provider relationship and things can get messy very quickly.

Do you really expect me to turn down free work?

Right now you might be thinking, so what? It’s still ultimately a free project. The problem lies with the fact that "no charge" is not the same as "no cost". The time you put into this project, the other work you don’t deliver in this space, the skills you don’t develop in house and the use of your organisation’s reputation should all be weighed up carefully.

To take advantage of pro-bono offers, the answer is to not get overly distracted by the "free" label and ensure the project can be run on your terms. For example:

  • Can you run it like a client? (Have you signed contracts? Will they donate billable time for you to use as you see fit? Who owns the IP?)
  • Are you sure it's the right group for you? (What’s its motivation? Has it got experience of working with charities? Does it understand your work and respect your expertise?)
  • Have you’ve talked through your next steps? (What follow-up will you receive? If you have to make changes, will there be further pro-bono support? Are you on the hook for ongoing charges such as hosting?)

If there’s a genuine desire to support your work through a partnership then there should be no issues with anything above. If the relationship is more extractive, however, you’re probably better off politely walking away.

Cui bono? There should only ever be one answer

There is definitely a place for pro-bono relationships in the charity sector. You can end up with talented people bringing fresh ideas to you work.

Make sure you’re approaching pro-bono projects with care, that you’re taking a wide view when assessing all the costs and, when it comes down to who benefits from the relationship, you and the people you work to support are not being sold short.

John Dunford is campaigns lead at the Developer Society and one of Third Sector's Fundraisers: the New Generation 2018 winners

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