Whether you are a WordPress consultant or just a computer geek, pro bono or free work probably gets asked of you on a regular basis. I know as the “computer guy” in my family for many years, it was always computer, printer, or networking issues. When I became a web developer full time it turned into building websites, helping create online business identities, and even free marketing management.
Yes there are times when free work is something you should say yes to. Whether it is for family, friends, or even an actual project. Being particular about who you work with comes with time, and how you manage that work shouldn’t differ from how you would treat a high paying client.
One of the key things that Cricket brought up is doing free work as you are up and coming. This is a great point. When I was first starting out consulting building websites I was in college. I was still a mechanical engineering major, but used building websites as a way to pay for books, offset the cost of rent, and even pay for tuition. It wasn’t until a year or two later I realized that I loved building websites, and hated Calculus.
Doing free work to prove yourself is kind of a right of passage if anything, we’ve all been there, and in order to get yourself credibility you may need to bite the bullet. I liken it also to internships. Internships are resume builders, so in/out of college you may take on an internship to show you have experience. Unless you intern at an agency where you can share your work, there are no real good internships for web consultants, so free work (or maybe cheap cheap work) is the way to go.
Another point Cricket brought up is the career-path change. She is going through one right now, trying to focus more on her project management skills. In order to get more experience under her belt and to prove that she should be hired on as a project manager, she is doing some free work.
Another time to say yes to pro bono work is when you really do believe in the cause. I used to do pro bono work for nonprofits all the time because I’d get to support a cause with something I knew how to do, without donating money. This was my way of giving back without the financial burden of having to fork over rent money. I gave an example from when I lived in San Francisco and I donated my time to the SF Bike Coalition, and in return I got a year or two of free membership. While this may not be considered 100% “donated” I did not get much or the equivalent in financial compensation, but they were a good group and needed help.
Shelly had a great tip that I think we all liked, which is every December she picks 2 clients for pro bono work. While they may be full website builds or just partial pieces this is a great time to donate your skills. With the holidays coming in, most paying businesses tend to go quiet as people go on their holiday vacations. This gives Shelly time without the financial worry to donate her skills to 2 charities, or clients she feels she can accomplish quickly.
Pro bono clients should be treated just like every other client, yes even if it is family. Before you start any work (free or not) you should come to an agreement of the scope of the project. If they want free work, be strict to what they actually want and be clear what you are willing to give.
Saying no can be so easy when there is no financial incentive, right? However once you say yes, trust me it becomes harder to say no to them. I have done quite a few projects where the free work seems doable in that 10 minutes I agreed, however once I get back to reality and the paying clients, I have to put them on the back burner. However I feel bad, and then I get an email 3 weeks later asking about the work, and I feel like I let them down.. which is my fault for saying yes in the first place.
If you do not have the time, its only unfair to them and you to say yes. While this can be applied to any client, you have more to gain from a paying client vs. those who want work and cannot afford your services.
If you want to take on pro bono work regularly, make sure to plan just as much time as you do a paying client.