Marketing for Small Businesses

When to Say ‘No’ to Pro Bono Projects

pro bono hazards

pro bono hazards

It usually starts out with a simple question: “What do you do for a living?”

Sounds innocent enough, but as a writer it is a question I am hesitant to answer because I normally get one of two responses:

Response #1: “Can you make a living doing that?”

Response #2: “Cool! I’d love to get your help/opinion on something I’ve written or need written.”

To answer the first question, yes I can and do make a living as a writer. I won’t lie. It can be hard work because I’m responsible for drumming up clients and projects instead of a company or creative director doling them out to me. But through perseverance, it’s allowed me to do what I love, while giving me the flexibility I crave.

The second question is the one that’s a little trickier to answer for fear of rubbing the person who asked it the wrong way, and because it almost always is a roundabout way of asking if I’ll work for free. Personally, I feel every strongly about giving back and try to make sure my business strikes a balance between paying gigs and pro bono work. However, that doesn’t mean I say ‘yes’ to every pro bono request that comes my way and neither should any other creative. We worked hard to hone our respective craft—and in many cases spent a good chunk of change paying for it—all that talent and expertise is worth something.

Here are two examples of when it’s OK to say ‘no’ to pro bono work.

It Isn’t Good Business

When you are considering taking on a pro bono project, keep your business goals and mission statement in mind. Ask yourself, ‘Does the project make sense for my brand?’ For example, if you mainly write about organic food and other health-related topics, accepting a pro bono gig from a convenience chain or fast food company wouldn’t be a smart move. By lending your time and talent, by you automatically attach your name to the project, so if it goes against your brand, it can damage your credibility for future paid work. You have to figure out if the end result will be an asset to your portfolio or a detriment? If you’re unsure on whether or not it’s the right pro bono project, ask detailed questions and don’t be afraid to ask if you can take some time to think about it. Listen to your instincts. When it comes to pro bono requests from nonprofits, the same rule of thumb mentioned above applies: does it make sense? Is this a one-off or are you being asked to commit to helping on multiple projects? And don’t allow yourself to be guilted into accepting a project just because it’s for a good cause. You still need to pay bills and saying ‘yes’ to every worthy project is not going to put money in your account. Be polite, but stand your ground when you say ‘no.’

 It Takes Up Too Much Time

As mentioned in the opening, I get paid to write for a living. Terms are agreed upon, contracts are signed, and clients expect that I’m going to deliver by the established deadline. In return, I expect to get paid. So when someone finds out I’m a writer and starts in with the, ‘Oh! I’d love you to look at/finesse/rewrite a few paragraphs/it won’t take long’ spiel, my defenses immediately go up. Why? Because it does take time to write something well and assuming otherwise is a little insulting. My clients are paying me good money not because I can string nouns, verbs, and adjectives together, but because I can fashion them in such a way that it grabs the reader’s attention. And guess what? That takes time. There are instances where I have to walk away and come back with fresh eyes. And usually there’s research involved. There’s no room for misinformation and I definitely don’t want to be caught using words or phrases that are overused or clichés.

Being a freelance writer offers me flexibility, which a lot of people interpret that as I’m not doing anything, so I can totally knock out whatever they need because they assume I’m just sitting in front of my computer waiting for their request to land in my inbox. There have been instances where the person hasn’t even asked if I have time to help him or her out. Instead they just sent along an email with what they wanted done. Please, do not be that friend. A good friend should understand and respect that your first priority is to take care of your paying clients. Your friend wouldn’t like you sashaying into their job and assuming he or she could drop everything to help for free, and you should be afforded the same courtesy. This is not to say that you can’t do pro bono work for a friend. Just make sure you have the time to dedicate to their request and stand up to him or her if they are always hitting you up for a freebie.

Also keep in mind that there is a delicate line between pro bono and asking a friend for their professional expertise. During my rebranding, I was given lots of great options by my graphic designer, but I just couldn’t pull the trigger on which designs to go with. So I asked a friend and fellow writer to take a look because she has a strong marketing background when it comes to branding. Within five minutes we had it sorted which designs would be used for print pieces and which would work for the web. And I’ve returned the favor for her when she was told she needed a bio at the eleventh hour and was in the middle of school pickup. She wasn’t asking me to write her bio, but instead be her sounding board and offer viable suggestions. See the difference?

Remember, there is nothing wrong helping others, but don’t do it at the expense of your business or reputation.

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