“Unquantifiable contributions will accrue rewards of status, gratitude, and goodwill mediated through the new social and symbolic structures emerging today” – Charles Eisenstein

In the same way that gift culture breaks down barriers between strangers by acting as a social lubricant, pro-bono work can open a whole new window of opportunity to service-providers and entrepreneurs around the world. This is a micro-example that extends itself to the beneficial effects of giving in our professions. Giving in our profession acts as a way to break down societal and economical boundaries that have traditionally limited us from doing the most meaningful work that could directly benefit society. Giving allows us an alternative to making meaningful impact (even when we are not directly working in the social sector) and the opportunity to utilize our very specific talents to benefit the greater good. Not surprisingly, however, there is a lot of stigma against pro-bono in the service-oriented business world:

“When you give your work away for free you are devaluing yourself!”
“Non-profits have really big budgets, so why should they get free stuff?!”
“Oh, only rich people can afford to do pro-bono work.”
“Ah! Pro-bono is harmful for the economy!”

These 4 statements represent the negative perception of giving your work away for free, and can be overheard in many conferences, studios, agencies, or dinner tables of service providers. Unfortunately what is not understood is that each of these concerns, while valid, are rooted deeply within myths that have been created by thought leaders in the marketing world who, not by surprise, are making a killing off of their non-profit clientele. Should we really be trusting marketers in the debate around the value of services provided by… marketers? In an attempt to inspire optimistic perspectives on the practice of pro-bono work, we are going to walk through the 4 myths of pro-bono in order to tackle each issue head on:

Giving work away diminishes its value
“I’m not against making money, but I am saying we can do both. We have designed a capitalist system wrong. We assume human beings are one-dimensional, all they do is make money, so we’ve created a money-centric world. Money commands everything because that’s our interpretation of capitalism … what kind of world is that? It’s a very uncomfortable interpretation of a human being. We have been turned into robots. Yes we are selfish, but also selfless, but we don’t allow that to be brought out.”

It is assumed that when something is given away for free, it loses value. This assumption comes from a collective understanding that when something is free, there is no exchange of value. This pre-conceived understanding is rooted in the thought that “value” and “money” are one in the same, but they are not. In fact, “monetary value” is just one of many types of value. For a business, value can come in many forms, but most commonly, value can be bucketed into the following give and take dichotomies:

a. Value <–> Monetary Exchange
b. Value <–> Networking and Contact Development
c. Value <–> Expansion of a Business’ Capabilities
d. Value <–> Marketing and Public Awareness

As a rule of thumb, a service-provider should remain weary of a project that does not at least offer 3 of the above 4 values in return for the success of their project. A paid project that has an NDA (non-disclosure agreement) attached to it, for example, will result in monetary exchange, networking and contact development, and an expansion of business capabilities. A pro-bono project, as an additional example, will result in networking and contact development, expansion of business capabilities, as well as marketing and public awareness.

When a business is giving work away for free, they are of course not receiving monetary value in exchange, but they are receiving value of some kind and, therefore, their work is not devalued at all. Pro-bono contributions represent meaningful economic activity that is measured not by quantitative returns but qualitative returns from the activity that advances human progress. It is a “nonmonetary circulation” of services that benefit the greatest societal needs that will have larger returns in a less instantly gratifying way as monetary exchanges have, but a more worthwhile and lasting return. Pro-bono is also now an avenue to reorganize giving methods in society, making it more decentralized, bottom-up, peer-to-peer, and self-organizing…this allows for many to give without having to accrue large amounts of wealth over a long time in order to do meaningful giving.

Non-profits have big budgets, so why should they get free stuff?
A stat that I love to bring up when discussing the value of pro-bono service is this: Non-profit organizations, in the United States alone, will spend close to 8 Billion USD per year on design and marketing expenditures. I only reference design and marketing because that is the field that I am in. Throw in all fees that come along with third-party relationships that non-profits in the US and beyond hold, and watch that number multiply.

One of my favorite things to do when speaking for an audience is ask the crowd to shout out ideas as to how much they think non-profits in the United States are spending on marketing and design expenditures. Without any deviation, I always hear faint shouts of “nothing” and “maybe a million or two,” When I reveal the actual statistic of “actually, close to $8 Billion”, I always get the same response: “Well shit, where is that money coming from? Why doesn’t my organization have access to these kinds of budgets?” The 9th or 10th time I heard this concern, I began to second guess the legitimacy of that statistic I discovered on the Harvard Business Review. Are organizations really spending close to $8 Billion per year? How is that possible if the thousands of non-profit leaders I have spoken to are telling me they are working off budgets that are, seriously, only in the hundreds, sometimes thousands, of dollars? I decided to look into it.

While the presence of $8 Billion for marketing and design expenses in the non-profit sector is surprising, even more surprising is the statistic of how many organizations are making up that statistic. The answer? A handful. These kinds of organizations that are making up about 90% of that enormous statistic are massive academic institutions, family foundations, and global operations that are employing thousands. Unfortunately, these organizations – with annual budgets in the Billions – are painting a picture for society that makes us all assume that all non-profits have it this well off. That just isn’t the case. In fact, if you go knock on any local organization’s door, you’ll quickly learn that they likely have a staff of one that handles absolutely everything. You’ll also learn that they have, on average, one month’s worth of resources in the bank. You’ll also learn that they are spending 80% of their work week applying for grants and foundation money.

Only rich people can afford to do pro-bono work
I will always remember the time someone said to my face: “well not all of us have mommy and daddy paying for our apartment. Some of us have to make a living.” Unfortunately this assumption was served with a side-order of spit after presenting my concept for a business model in which half of a service-provider’s work would be given away for free.

Our society maintains an understanding that “philanthropy” and “giving back” are acts that are reserved for the wealthy. However, the idea that only the mega rich can give back has proven to be false thanks to the emergence of new models of business in which giving back and getting coexist.

I launched verynice with 75 of my own dollars. It helped me purchase my first domain name and hosting plan. After launching, I wouldn’t shut up about it. I met a lot of people, and I grew this business fast. As with many entrepreneurs, I had no investor behind me, and I didn’t have anything handed to me – I stumbled until I had the resources I needed to self-fund the success of our business. This included me working numerous day jobs to pay the bills while running verynice from my apartment in the late nights. Several years down the line, I was fortunate enough to bring on a business partner who would subsequently share in the highs and lows of fine-tuning the business model until the day that we finally figured it out.

For many of us, contributing to social change in the world seems far-fetched in our daily lives, but in fact, giving back has never been a more accessible endeavor. We live in a time where we can help people in disaster-torn countries like Haiti from our office, several thousands of miles away. Long ago are the days when only missionaries and peace corps members could give in their profession. Now nearly everyone can leverage their careers to foster social impact. Giving is not an exclusive party for the church or rotary club, and it is not just for the top earners, either. Instead, philanthropy is an opportunity for everyone to apply to not only their personal lives, but also their professional careers.