The beautiful thing about being willing to run a business that gives over half of its work away for free is the fact that you are able to call all of the shots and determine your own rules for who deserves your pro-bono offering. Setting strict policies around your offer can help you maintain a high level of enjoyment and organization in the volunteer work that you will embark on. In “Policy Making,” learn what initial communications look like with a non-profit, get tips on who you should consider giving your work away, explore sample policies that have proven successful amongst businesses that are operating under this model, and explore ways to keep your head above water when times get tough and the work gets heavy.

H1: What do initial communications look like with a non-profit?

After a non-profit organization gets in touch with you, assuming you have already evaluated your schedule and the bandwidth of your resources in order to determine that you are, in fact, capable of accommodating the project, the first order of business is to determine the specific scope of your offering. When an organization gets in tough with you, they will likely make suggestions of the kinds of services they are looking for, but it is up to you, as a professional in your given industry or sector, to realize which of your services (if not all of them) are actually needed by the organization at the moment of time in which you will be engaging in the work. After this scope is determined, internally review the scope and ensure that it still fits within the availability of both your time and current available resources. If it does not, refine the scope to a more realistic level of engagement and then present it to the benefactor. It is crucial to understand that the specific scope must be determined at the very beginning of an engagement with the benefactor of your services. While the scope can and most likely will be adjusted over the course of your project, if you fail to set the expectations for your collaboration up-front, the timeline and workload will very quickly spiral out of control and you will, worst case, find yourself running on fumes or even worse, paying out of pocket to get the work off of your plate.

After the scope is set with your benefactor, the next topic of conversation is time-frame. Very often when someone is receiving something for free, they will feel awkward setting specific milestones for the projects or requesting set delivery times. While that is quite attractive for you in regards to flexibility, it is not ideal in the long run as it will result in projects that drag on far longer than they are worth. Remember to always have a time-frame for every project you take on, even if it is not requested of you, and then meet those deadlines!

While scope and time-frame are the most typical topics of initial communications with a non-profit (or any benefactor of your services), other topics of conversation can include a discovery phase in which you get to know the benefactor better in order to fully understand their needs and the context for your relationship.

H2: How do I deal with equipment rentals or other overhead that is out of my scope?

The nice thing about having policy making at the center of a philanthropic business model is that you get to define what you will and will not give away for free. While the service-business by definition operates in the exchange of knowledge and time, every once in a while hard costs such as equipment rentals, shipping charges, printing fees, etc., will come up that need to be addressed. At verynice, we do not offer to cover these hard costs, and we do not endorse others who leverage the business model to do so either. However, whether you do or do not intend to offer to front the money on the hard costs of your pro-bono engagement, you need to define those terms with your client upfront so as to avoid any negative surprises that may arise from your work. For example, there was one instance in the early days of the studio in which we designed and developed a website for a non-profit organization. When the time came to upload the final files to the organization’s server in order to make the site live and accessible to the public, there was quite an awkward silence followed up by: “I thought you guys were going to host us, too?” While this incident eventually got resolved, it did result in some costs to the organization that, while small, were not budgeted for. Make sure that you avoid this kind of scenario by providing the benefactor of your pro-bono services with a breakdown of any and all hard costs prior to project commencement so that they can set their expectations and fundraise if necessary.

H3: Should, or should I not, be selective in the sectors I work in on a pro-bono basis? What about on a paid basis?

For your pro-bono work, it is entirely up to you to define who deserves your services at no charge. This does not have to be limited to non-profit organizations, and can easily be adapted to models that choose to work with individuals as well. However, this flexibility can also result in uncomfortable scenarios in which you are going to be asked by pro-bono leads: “Why don’t I qualify for your pro-bono services?” If you do not have an answer to this question, you are going to find yourself in a pretty awkward situation. Avoid this all together by explicitly stating on your website or other marketing materials the type of clientele you offer pro-bono services to.

For paid work, this model typically thrives in situations that are more inclusive as opposed to exclusive due to the fact that really any paid project is of high value to your business regardless of budget or sector. That said, should you choose to select a strong and specific vertical to focus your efforts, be sure to do research to ensure that your market size is substantial enough to support you in the long run.

H4: What if a nonprofit has the budget and wants to pay me?

Just because a non-profit organization has a budget does not necessarily mean that you should charge for the work. The mission and vision behind the double half methodology is to alleviate expenses for nonprofit organizations, or change-makers at large depending upon your benefactor, so that they may reinvest their valuable resource into their impact and cause. Under the founding principles of this business model, you should always first offer to make your services available for free to the organization in order to collect their reaction around the idea. For more information on what to do if an organization refuses your pro-bono offering, please reference the next section, H5.

H5: What do I do if a nonprofit refuses my pro-bono offering?

There is a lot of stigma in the nonprofit sector around pro-bono work. It may sound shocking, because it certainly came as a surprise to me, but a lot of organizations are uncomfortable receiving services at no cost. The reason is because many organizations, especially more established ones, have very tight deadlines to work with and, as a result, are afraid by a potential lack of commitment from the service provider due to the absence of a financial exchange. If this comes up in conversation with the organization that you were originally offering your services to for free, you should still do you best to make them as comfortable as possible with the concept of pro-bono by offering to create an agreement that both parties would sign in order to have a paper trail of agreements when it comes to time-frame or scope. If the organization still refuses the concept of pro-bono, it is up to you how you would like to proceed. At verynice, we have it in our policies (see! Policies are important!) to have the non-profit actually name their price by specifying the budget they are looking to spend on the given project. We then avoid any negotiations and simply do it for the price that they asked for. If an organization does not have a budget in mind, and insists that we provide them with a bid for the project that is extremely low, typically no more than $100.00 in order to make them feel comfortable thanks to the presence of some sort of financial exchange.

H6: Is “pro-bono” always synonymous with non-profit work? Can I consider work done for for-profits with a good cause to be pro-bono work?

In section H3, we explored the idea of selectivity in pro-bono work. As mentioned there, the specific benefactor of your pro-bono services is entirely up to you, and does not at all have to be limited to the non-profit sector. That said; remember that anyone outside of the non-profit space will benefit from your work in the form of profit. Be careful not to get trapped giving your work away for free just so that some other business can split a bigger Christmas bonus. That is not fair to you!

H7: In what case can discount work/“partial pro-bono” play a role in the for-profit space?

Pro-bono work, as an offering, can manifest itself in two different ways: full pro-bono and partial pro-bono. Full pro-bono is simply an engagement that is discounted at a rate of 100%. What this means is that the benefactor has no financial obligation to you for your services. Partial pro-bono, on the other hand, is the result of a partial discount as opposed to a full discount, and can often be used as an extension of your philanthropic work in order to extend your impact across other disciplines and sectors.

At verynice, we always offer our non-profit clientele services at a full pro-bono (meaning free) rate, but often times we will actually extend this offer to for-profit social enterprises through discounted services up to 50% off of our standard rates. This hybrid paid/pro-bono deal allows us to help out businesses that are doing well in the world while simultaneously covering the costs of our immediate expenses and time for the project. It is what some might call a win-win! As you are establishing the policies around your pro-bono service offering, consider how a partial pro-bono model might fit into the work that you are doing by plotting who deserves a full discount as opposed to a partial discount for your work.

H8: What do I do if there are more pro-bono clients than paid clients?

After verynice was first featured on GOOD Magazine’s website, we acquired 50 new volunteers and had 20 non-profit organizations apply for our pro-bono services. Out of excitement, we ended up accepting every single one of those organizations. As a result, our pro-bono to paid ratio was a bit over 80% pro-bono. This was an exciting, yet difficult time for the studio! The best advice I can offer for someone that has found themselves in a similar situation to the above scenario in which you actually have more pro-bono project than paid projects is quite simple… suck it up, finish the work, and put a hold on accepting further pro-bono work!