Pro Bono or No-no: Weighing Profit with Social Impact

by Liz Theresa | Business

I’ve been in business more than 12 years and used to believe firmly that pro bono was always a terrible idea. Working without the possibility of receiving money? It’s empirically an uneven energetic exchange! It made no sense to me. 

Working in website design and development attracts pro bono requests regularly. Sometimes, I’ll receive inquiries with massive project scopes for which I’d normally quote thousands of dollars… and for what? Either nothing or some equity in a startup that will very likely never get there. (And when it doesn’t get there, then what? …whose fault is it? Is it the website designer and developer who gets blamed or the bad idea? The founder? I digress.)

These are precisely the kinds of projects I will proudly always scream an emphatic NO to. Do it with me. NOOOOOOOOO. 

That felt good. 

Even if your idea is something that was never going to become a legitimate business, it’s your responsibility to pay people who do work for you no matter what. Can’t pay? Find a new idea or some investors, but it’s not my burden. It’s yours! (I promise I’m fun at parties.)

The light side of pro bono? Social impact and community service. This year, I thought, I’d like to give back more intentionally to my community and do something more heart-centered than sending checks to charities at the end of the year. (Although, checks are nice too.) Every year, I’ve made donations to my local pantry (both food and financial) and St. Jude. I had never, until this year, offered in-kind donations to another organization.

In-kind donations are anything that’s donated to a nonprofit, other than money. Pro bono work is a type of in kind donation.  

After some bad experiences with in kind donations and some blissfully positive experiences, I’ve developed a few ways you can decide if a pro bono opportunity is right for you:

  • If it’s an organization that you specifically picked to support, then it’s most likely worthy of your time! I selected a cause this year that I was passionate about and it made a massive difference in how I showed up energetically, my team’s enthusiasm about the project work, and the quality of the outcome for all parties involved. 
  • Be clear when expressing and communicating your level of in-kind donation and specific role. If you’re only able to give a few hours per month or one hour per week of a certain type of support, be very clear about the scope. This way, the organization will know your boundaries. This means you’ll be less likely to burnout and they won’t inadvertently ask too much of you. 
  • If your heart doesn’t scream yes at the opportunity, or if you’re thinking of doing it just to be nice or please someone you know works there, the answer is still probably no. You can’t commit to doing a bunch of work to please one person you’d hate to disappoint. That person isn’t enough of a reason for you to give. You have to really care about the cause itself! Otherwise, you’ll really hate the organization and the entire engagement. Your team’s morale will plummet because they’ll sense your brewing rage. The outcome will likely also not reflect your best work. 
  • What kind of support can the organization offer you? Are they listing you on their site as an in-kind sponsor? This matters the least, but if you’re helping them, they should be appreciative of you by either making you an in-kind sponsor or at least writing you a personal thank you note. (Call me old fashioned, but expressing gratitude goes a long way with me!)

What pro bono / in kind donations stories do you have? What can you teach me? What did you learn? Connect with me anytime @liztheresa. 

Liz Theresa
Online Business Expert at LizTheresa.com <br>

Liz Theresa helps entrepreneurs find clarity and market themselves online with confidence. She’s been in business for more than a decade creating powerful, high-converting websites, memorable brands, and coaching business owners on how they can be more visible online. She wants every entrepreneur to rise and be the star of their own business because let’s face it – a big break isn’t something you wait for – it’s something you make. Be sure to listen to Liz on Biz, her Forbes-acclaimed podcast every Monday for fresh, inspiring, and often hilarious stories of running a business.

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