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I'm just a girl in the world.. that kind of likes to write. Mom of 2 teen girls & work as Talent Attraction & Marketing professional. Oh, & I'm addicted to my phone, Social Media, HR/Talent Marketing & Caffeine... you can learn more about me at www.linkedin.com/in/theonecrystal

Newsflash: Pro-Bono Doesn’t Mean “FREE”

ImageI’d like to submit there’s a serious misconception or two surrounding the phrase “pro-bono.”  I blame this, largely, on Webster/the Dictionary for making “free” the secondary definition.  While it’s generally accepted that ‘pro-bono’ means that something will be done ‘gratis’ (1), that doesn’t make it “free.”  What ‘pro-bono’ actually means is “for the public good.”

Why does this matter?  Because too many businesses/people/organizations are trying to cash-in on service projects but don’t give them the dedication they’re due to stick through it when “paying work” comes in or “other projects” take priority at work.  Not only is this unfair to the recipient that the defaulting ‘benefactor’ pledged to, but because these charity efforts are often joint-ventures?  It impacts all the other people/businesses/organizations that make up the project team.  That?  Is not cool. 

Case in point:  I’ve been working with a school system for the better part of a year on developing a parent/student community for their sports program.  It’s something where the athletes can work together outside of school on different things they need to better their ‘game,’ and parents can be involved with schedules, development needs, fundraising, etc.  For anyone who’s done any work with the PTA or a school system, I don’t need to tell you how involved the rules are when it comes to things that involve students… but for anyone who hasn’t?  It’s not a cake-walk and there’s very strict approval guidelines that need to be followed.

We have 19 people working on this project, 3 of which make up the development team (2).  The UI for this project isn’t really overly complicated and was supposed to be finished 3 months ago.  Each time, there’s been a hold up or a material change to the UX (3) that I’ve sent for them to do.  From blatant, unapproved advertising added in to “we got busy” with half-done submittals… every time we’ve interacted there’s been a “negative ghost rider” response from me on what they’ve come back with.

Today was no exception.  I’ll spare you the details, but the net result was “What IS this?!”  It didn’t look finished, and it certainly wasn’t what was submitted for them to develop.  When I queried (4) why we were so off-base again, the response I got was, “We rushed through this because we had paying work to do.  This just takes a lot of time.”

No kidding… there’s 15 other people and I who completely agree with you… and who all have “paying” work to do, too.

Ultimately, it’s not my job to “fire” them from this project; and I know it will get done eventually.  But for small business owners – or ANYONE contemplating taking on a service project, really – please do the rest of the project staff & the organization you’re donating time & service to a favor:  Realistically think about the commitment you have to make  before you make it.  Treat it like a “paid gig” and ask all the questions you would there, including things like:

  1. How much time has been estimated for this project?
  2. What resources are required – what of those do you already have?
  3. Is the project adequately funded?
  4. How much time will be expected from me & is there a project timeline I can see?
  5. What happens if my workload changes; are there back-ups to step in?
  6. Can I get a back-up lined up if I can’t do the work due to unforseen circumstances?
  7. What kind of recognition is in place for me (5) since I’m not getting paid?

Giving back to the community, doing things for the public good – it’s great.  If you’re prepared.  If you’re not prepared, just say NO.  Trust me, in the long run the organization will appreciate you more for that than they will for opening your mouth and committing to where you’re not prepared to deposit your money/resources.


(1) Gratis means without payment – so it’s free, but it’s a 1-sided.. it’s really only “free” to the party receiving it.

(2) Because I? Don’t code.

(3) UI = User Interface – where people interact with the programming; UX = User Experience – this is design, communication, content – it’s what manipulates the way a person feels about their time spent on the site/game/community/whatever.

(4) With a MUCH nicer external dialogue than what was going on in my interior monologue, by the way.

(5) A question those developers should have asked since they kept trying to work in ways to put in ads for themselves.

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One Comment on “Newsflash: Pro-Bono Doesn’t Mean “FREE””

  1. Keri Jaehnig (@connectyou) 09/10/2012 at 3:53 pm #


    Thank you for writing this article! I worked in the non-profit sector for 14 years, and I’ve served on the PTA about as long…

    It is terrific when an organization receiving something “pro-bono” appreciates the work, and offers something of value in return to the provider. It was always my goal, as a non-profit director to make it a win/win.

    At the same time, the pro-bono provider should not expect that to be the case. There are tax write-offs on many occasions, and just because there is paying work to do doesn’t mean we should slight a commitment. If we commit, we should follow through.

    In a perfect world, neither the provider nor the client should feel taxed — There should be a relationship forming that makes the give and take worth it.

    But I think what you’re writing about is the stuff we learned in our elementary years — The right and wrong of it all. What would their mothers think, eh?? 🙂


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