In the service-business, the perfect approach to client-relations is always undergoing iteration. Challenges come and go, and new methods for conquering those challenges effectively come and go as well, but what new challenges arise when you are giving half over your work away for free? This section of our Frequently Asked Questions titled “Client Relations” will reveal just that. In “Client Relations,” learn what questions you need to ask at the very beginning of a pro-bono relationship, how to set a scope and an agreement with your benefactor in order to avoid the drama that results from misinterpretation, and how to create an infrastructure for yourself in order to withstand the demands of your clients while still being able to produce quality work that leads to additional referrals.

F1: What questions should I ask the non-profits that apply for my services?

We have found that confronting an interested pro-bono service recipient with a list of questions that they are required to answer up-front actually serves as a great barrier that reduces many applicants that are not serious about the services. Aside from that bit of inconvenience, this list of questions can also help you determine if the applicant is legitimate. In the early days of verynice, we did not have an application form or questionnaire of any kind, and just took clients as they came. Unfortunately for us, we quickly discovered that when you are offering very valuable services at no cost, you will occasionally run into a person that is trying to take advantage of you. Believe it or not, we have had a few applicants pose as non-profit organizations, who were, in fact, for-profits in disguise. Luckily, thanks to our perfected application questions, we have been able to weed those fakers out of the system! The following is a list of questions you may want to consider asking your applicant:

1. What is your organization’s name?
2. What is your name, email address, and location?
3. What is your role within the organization?
4. How long have you been with the organization?
5. Is your organization a 501c3 non-profit, or the equivalent if outside of the United States?
6. Tell us about your organization. What is your mission? How is your work impacting the world?
7. Educate us about your cause. What is your personal connection to the cause?
8. Any significant accomplishments you have made that you want us to know about? (optional, but encouraged!)
9. Where do you see your organization in 10 years?
10. What kinds of problems is your organization facing right now?
11. What kinds of services do you think you might be interested in? How might we be able to help?
12. What is your rough time-frame for the project? Why?
13. How did you hear about us?

The purpose of these questions is to not only eliminate those that do not have serious interest, but also to help you get a better understanding of the organization’s current impact, dreams, aspirations, problems, etc., so that you can begin to form a handful of assumptions around what you might be able to offer the organization as you begin to develop a more in-depth conversation with the organization.

If you are choosing to be selective in who you give your services to (for example, only environmental causes, only Los Angeles-based organizations, etc.), then this application can also help you eliminate those that do not qualify for your services.

F2: How do non-profit organizations perceive pro-bono service?

I want to start by saying that close to 80% of the non-profit organizations that have approached verynice throughout the years have done so without any apprehensive feelings. That said, something that surprised me in the very early days was that quite a few of the non-profit organizations that were approaching our studio were afraid of the pro-bono offering. The fact that we were not getting paid immediately made them think we would be slow on turnaround, we would not be able to make the deadlines they set, and we would not do a good job for them. Of course none of these concerns are true, but all of these concerns are realized through bad experiences each of these organizations have had in the past and/or are influenced by the landscape of giving in the corporate scene.

F3: How do I help a non-profit organization feel comfortable working with me on a pro-bono basis?

As mentioned in F2, there is a stigma to a handful of non-profit organizations, especially large ones, toward pro-bono services due to concern around project focus, change-orders, and deadlines. When you run into an issue like this, or are confronted with a concern like this, it is important for you to help the organization understand that everything will be OK with their project. You need to make them feel comfortable.

A very simple and proven method for helping a non-profit organization feel safe working with you is to assemble a schedule for the project right off the bat. Please note that if you provide a schedule like this, it is very important that you make sure that you meet the deadlines. Another very simple method for helping a non-profit feel as though you are committed to their project is to actually write up a very simple contract/agreement between you and/or your company as well as the organization. Treat a pro-bono client in exactly the same way you would a paid client, because the sentiment that “you get what you pay for” is not applicable in this kind of client engagement.

F4: What infrastructure do I need to ensure that I am ready for a heavy flow of potential pro-bono clients?

You do not need any infrastructure whatsoever to ensure you are ready for a heavy flow of potential pro-bono clients. One of the beautiful things about being a service-oriented business as opposed to a product-oriented business is that you do not need to worry about having a stock of “inventory” laying around waiting for interested people to pick it up. You need only take things when you have the bandwidth to do so.

That said, if you are interested in implementing an infrastructure for this kind of scenario because you want to accept a heavy flow of pro-bono clients, you need to increase your bandwidth and social production network. For more specific strategies around scaling, please refer to section G.

F5: How many projects / clients should I be taking on?

The amount of total projects/clients you should be taking on, or setting as a goal for your consultancy is highly dependent on the following factors: overhead, profit goals, bandwidth/resources. We will walk through each of these scenarios, but the most important thing to remember is that at least 50% of your projects/active clients need to be pro-bono if leveraging this model. In lieu of that, your active project minimum must be at least 2.

1. Overhead. If you have a business with a high overhead, you are going to need more projects in order to make ends meet. Alternatively, you can also find ways to keep your overhead low by leveraging a co-working space for an office, cutting out the things you don’t really need, and more. More strategies to keep overhead low can be found in section B3.

If you have a business with low overhead (i.e. just yourself, interns, etc.), then consider setting your profit goals low in the beginning, and very gradually escalate the amount of work you take on. For example, in the first year that verynice implemented this 51/49 model (note that from 2008-2010 we were operating as 100% pro-bono and then 70/30 while experimenting), we were taking roughly five clients on at a time. The next year that escalated to roughly 15-20, as our resources and bandwidth grew upon acquiring more interested contractors and freelancers. Currently, as of 2013, we are averaging 35-40 projects at a time. We have found this slow build of projects combined with a slow build of expenses to be very easy to plan for.

2. Profit Goals. Obviously if your end goal is to make the most money possible, you are going to have to take on as many projects as you possibly can at one time. That said, trying to become a million dollar business right away does not work with this model. Set your profit goals low, but be hard on yourself to meet those goals. Every quarter, raise those profit and revenue goals, and meet them. Soon you will be surprised by what you were capable of, all without any upfront investment to make big leaps fast.

3. Bandwidth/Resources. It might seem obvious, but I’m going to say it anyways: the higher your bandwidth, the more work you can take on. While this does seem simple, many consultancies do not think in this manner. It is much more common to have a high bandwidth, and put all of that energy toward very few projects. This model, instead, calls for always hitting a ceiling of some sort in terms of capacity. If you have the resources and the bandwidth (i.e. a large network, etc.), use it to its maximum capabilities.

F6: Do I need to charge my paid clientele extra in order to compensate?

There are two potential methods to subsidize your pro-bono work: 1. Double your current project load, and 2. Double your rates for your paid clientele. While the decision is up to you, the preferred direction is not to double your rates, but instead to double your work load. The main reason that this is the preferred method of subsidization for all of your philanthropic work is that it will lead to a less limiting client base and, in doing so, will make your services more accessible to small businesses and startups.

F7: How do I set a clear agreement and scope with a pro-bono client?

Just as an agreement and full understanding of the scope of work involved in a paid relationship, the same is necessary in a pro-bono relationship. Actually, it is arguably even more important because when you are perceived as a generous individual, it can be easily assumed that you will always be generous and therefore say “yes” to everything asked of you.

While it can be difficult to say “no,” especially to something you are emotionally invested in, it is crucial, and the limits of your offer will be understood. If an organization is not respecting your limitations, or if an organization is not interested in what you have to offer, don’t fight it! Better luck next time. Whenever an organization gets in touch with verynice, we assess their situation and if we are interested and available, we send them an offer that highlights the specific time-frame and scope of work we are willing to give to them pro-bono. In most instances, this scope and time-frame is not negotiable and the organization is asked to either accept or decline the offer. This method of initial engagement, we have found, actually very successfully sets an organization’s expectations around the engagement and therefore makes it known that, while we are generous, we are busy people, and we have rules and structures to our relationships. Doing this will help position you as a person of authority, and therefore, will create a perception of value around your time and your work.

F8: How do I ensure that I will not be overworked or taken advantage of?

As mentioned in section F7, a very clear scope/agreement of workload for each pro-bono project is crucial to have at the very beginning of a project. Putting a set of policies in place for yourself and your business can also ensure that you are not being taken advantage of by very clearly stating for yourself and your clients what you are willing to give away as well as who you are willing to give that away to.

verynice learned this the hard way in the early years by actually not clearly stating what specifically makes an organization or individual worthy of our pro-bono offer. As a result, we found on multiple occasions that very profitable organizations were actually taking advantage of us in order to save on costs and, therefore, profit more off of the product or service that we were developing for them. As a result of those negative experiences, we instituted a rule for ourselves to only offer pro-bono service to 501c3 non-profit organizations. Ever since, we have not experienced an instance of feeling taken advantage of.

F9: How do I set a timeframe for non-profit projects?

The success of your work in the non-profit sector is often something that can only be measured after quite a lot of time being hands on with a given organization. That said, you can’t always commit to a year long engagement, and sometimes all you can fit into your schedule is an hour long phone call. The good news: this model allows for flexibility in engagement due to the fact that the 50% pro-bono measurement is based on a commitment of projects, not necessarily time.

The key moral to the story regarding time-frames, however, is not necessarily that it is something that is under your control, but instead that it is something that has to exist. If you do not set a specific time-frame on your pro-bono engagement, it will not end, and it will become harder to end. This is something that you need to clearly state at the beginning of each project in order to have the benefactor completely understand the scope of your offer. If you do not clearly state this scope, and if there is no scope that is agreed to, it will be assumed that you are always available to the organization. If you happen to want to always be available for anything and everything, good for you. If not, know that that would be the expectation.

F10: What systems can be put in place to streamline pro-bono leads?

Pro-bono leads can be streamlined through developing an online application form for the benefactor to populate. This application form, similar to what we have on verynice’s contact page, will keep your pro-bono leads organized and easily searchable. That said, this is only one way to organize leads, and the specific direction that works best for you should be reflected upon and committed to on your end.

Once you have committed to a specific system for collecting pro-bono requests, do not deviate from that system. There have been instances in which we have received phone calls, text messages, personal emails, and even office visits from organizations that are interested in our pro-bono offering. In those instances, we have been very upfront in informing the pro-bono lead that they will not be considered for our pro-bono offering unless they fill out our application form online. While it can sound harsh and is a bit awkward to say in the beginning of launching your business, it will save you a lot of headaches and further work to establish yourself as a professional

F11: How do you define a scope for a pro-bono client?

The needs of each client are like a thumb print. No two organizations need the same things, everyone has drastically different problems! For verynice, we use a process that starts with examining an organization’s current problems in order to allow us, as professionals, to make the best call possible in regards to what solution we can offer for them. In the early days of verynice, we would always ask the organization what they wanted: a logo, website, a business plan, etc., but in more recent years we have found that by asking an organization to tell us what they need, they are already assuming the best solution possible for their problem. Part of our job, as consultants and service providers, is to get to the bottom of our clients’ problems in order to define the best solution (and therefore scope) for the work.