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3 Rules For Designers Who Want To Help Nonprofits

Don’t give your work away, but make sure you go in with a plan.

3 Rules For Designers Who Want To Help Nonprofits
[Illustrations: Justin Ahrens]

At some point, professionals in all industries encounter people or organizations that need their professional assistance but cannot afford the necessary services.

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I’ve seen my share of these kinds of encounters; having made “Design for Good” initiatives a priority at my design firm over the last 10 years, it is not uncommon for us to receive two to three requests a month from nonprofits or a good causes, asking for our design expertise. While I believe it is important for professionals to engage in these opportunities, I think the nature of this kind of work can become a burden–for both your company and the client.


That may sound harsh, but allow me to explain: While your professional work can serve as a key jumping off point to help organizations gain credibility and momentum, it does not take much for the relationship to become encumbering and codependent for both parties involved. From the organization receiving help’s point of view, their opportunities to exercise agency and ownership over the services being provided are inherently limited. From the service provider’s point of view, you cannot afford to give the attention and resources that you would give to a paying client; your capacities are limited, no matter how much you want to help.

I would argue that the best work for clients that require discounted work is done when there are a few parameters in place from the outset that allow both parties to function as best as they can under the circumstances of collaboration:

1: Figure out the scope

When you are first beginning to engage with a client that requires discounted work, it is important to ask the right questions to establish an appropriate scope. This requires asking: What is the work that must be done and when will both parties feel it is done? What are the goals that each party has in mind? What metrics will be used to evaluate if the goal has been met or not? If you can set the scope from the outset, it allows each party to make decisions that suit them without hurting the other party.

2: Set expectations

How often has your company been approached for 100% pro bono work? It happens at my firm all the time. While I do think there are some positive opportunities available in this kind of work, I believe that pro bono work inherently limits the possibility for accountability and ownership in projects. While none of us want to openly admit it, money changes things. When there is financial buy-in, companies on both sides feel responsible for the work that is being created and the way that the time and money are being stewarded.


I believe setting the expectation of payment with a client (even if it is at a very discounted rate) creates a healthy dialogue about the value of the project. It also serves as a checks-and-balances system that forces both companies to be sensitive to the boundaries of the other. While it may be uncomfortable at first (especially if the non-profit is in dire straights), having these conversations is important: it prevents surprises from souring the relationship.

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3: Have an exit strategy

The goal should always be to leave an organization at the appropriate time, and to leave it better than you found it. But this is always much easier said than done. In order to leave an organization in a better place, it requires the forethought of what is sustainable and what is not.

For example, with design work, it is /not/ sustainable to create an HTML email that requires extensive design elements and someone externally to populate it. It is sustainable, however, to create an HTML template that can be populated internally. What are the practices and dynamics you are implicitly and explicitly setting into place with this relationship, and how can it harm or benefit the organization when it is time to part ways?

All in all, when done healthfully, working with clients that require discount work is a discipline that I believe all professionals should incorporate in their work loads. It forces companies out of their comfort zones and allows organizations access to services that they would not otherwise have. This kind of work helps show each party where their strengths and weaknesses lie, and pushes each to be better at what they do. When parameters are set in place, expectations are laid on the table, and both parties are prepared to part ways at the right time, it makes all the difference

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