Wednesday, November 13, 2013

What to say when a non-profit company asks for free work

You’re sweating, you’re mind is wrought with anxiety, your stomach clenches every time you think of it. Feelings of anger, frustration and dread are keeping you from being your best creative self, not to mention a good night’s sleep. It’s time to do your client billing and you feel underpaid, over-extended and taken advantage of. Sound familiar?

If it does, then you are not alone, creative friend. Now is a good time to take charge of your billing so that you can make a good living with your incredible talents, and let the world know that you are a professional! You provide a service, skill or product that your client does not have, right? This value is measurable in dollars, people. I’ve discovered that most anxiety starts when we (and yes, of course I include myself) don’t set clear boundaries with clients from the start. 

The principle truth is that everyone is much happier when: 
1. There are rules
2. The rules are stated clearly
3. The rules are enforced

I asked some successful creative professionals about how they deal with some typical client/billing scenarios. Since I often need real-life specifics, I came up with some general scripts for you to start incorporating into your business practices. Note the word "practice" because that's all it is.

A non-profit company asks for your creative work pro-bono

Remember these wise words of Lisa Hazen, Lisa Hazen Design and Editorial: "Non profits have to pay the same as everybody else because I am FOR-profit." Even if this company is non-profit, it is still a company in need of your particular skills and talents. They have to pay the plumber, the roofer and the phone bill, right? Well, they also have to pay the creative talent.

But you're thinking. This is the crowd I need to hang with for connections that might lead to more business. Okay, if you think that you will truly benefit financially from the “exposure”, then trade out your work with specific guidelines in a barter. And don’t forget to make those connections at the event AND promote your company and what you do with business cards, table signage and/or banners!

Say this:
“I can supply {the first 5 hours of design work} in trade for {a half page ad in your promotion or similar}.” 

Or, say this:
“I will donate one of my {products} with my name and company listed prominently next to it.”

Are your thinking, I love this project! It's my chance to do great work on my own terms. Does this job mean you can build your real-world experience that will mean more fully paid work down the line? Do you absolutely love the organization and want to help their bottom line by saving them some costs? Okay.

Say this:
“I’m happy to do this (specific job) pro bono because it will be something I can use in my portfolio and I have a passionate connection to the cause. Please understand that this means I will ask for creative license over the look and design so that we can both benefit from the experience. After {a specific number of hours, or projects etc} is complete, I will bill according to my standard rates of {a specific amount}. Based on our conversations on what your needs are, I estimate that I will be donating {this specific amount} to your organization. I also ask you to send me a letter on your organization’s stationery stating this so that I can retain it for my files."

Carolyn Stendahl, from Studio Stendahl has more good advice, especially about including a maintenance fee option: "After meeting with the non-profit, I’d outline the specs of the job, including specific details about the updates and estimate time it would take. I’d review it with the non-profit, and then on a periodic basis, especially if you expected issues.  I’d also include fees for maintenance.  That could be a monthly or annual fee for a certain amount of hours."

The non-profit company asks for your work at discounted rates

Don't discount your work. More on that after the quote.

Say this:
"I am happy to quote for the {insert job here}. I don’t discount my rates because you are an important client, and I want to give your job all the attention and time it needs to be successful."

Do you still insist on discounting your rates? Remember that if you discount your hourly rate (or your products) then when a good, full-paying opportunity comes along, you won’t be able to take it because you’ll be busy, or you won’t have the products anymore. This will make you mad at yourself, which isn’t good for your health and then you might possibly transfer that anger on your client, which isn’t good for business relations.

Brad Plogsted from OXC Design + Branding does offer different rates, and has this perspective: "If my clients need brochure edits, I don't want them going to someone else for these 'cheaper' services and only coming to me for more expensive tasks. Eventually, I would outsource the work to another freelancer, but make sure I'm the only one who deals with the client. That way, my familiarity with the brand is still there, and since I know how designers think, communicating with the freelancer will be smoother and less prone to mistakes. I would build in a 10-20% markup, to reflect the value the client is getting from my experience with their brand, and for the ease in just dealing with one designer (me)." In this scenario, there are still rules and they are built to increase business while offering the client a valuable service.

Is this helpful? Will you practice this if you are struggling to get paid for your work? I promise I will too. More scripts and scenarios later. {Margot}


  1. Thank you for this! These are such great and tasteful responses to such a common problem. I have run into several of these scenarios and often find myself squirming in my chair, trying to figure out what to say.

  2. Great article Margot! This is really valuable and honestly, necessary, for designers to know. Especially the trade idea for otherwise "free" nonprofit work.

  3. This is one of the hardest things I have to execute on a regular basis. Thanks for the tips!


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