It’s generally not a good business practice to work for free. But if you offer your services gratis through a formal pro bono program, you’re likely to meet people who could help your business down the line and generate enough good will to gain new paying prospects, too. In addition, if you’re focusing on a new specialty, providing your services for free is an effective way to build an impressive portfolio quickly.
Law firms and public-relations agencies commonly offer free services, but nearly any type of professional service business can do pro bono work.
Here’s how to set up a pro bono program:
Talk with your employees about their pet causes. If you employ staff, talk with each person individually (or send out an email survey) to find out which nonprofit groups they typically give to or volunteer for. Successful pro bono programs serve to motivate and inspire employees, so choose a cause that’s close to their hearts when selecting clients. If you’re a sole proprietor, of course, you already know what types of causes you like to support.
Determine how to structure your pro bono program. Would you like to engage your entire team on a large project for one client or allow each employee to complete a set number of volunteer hours for a client of his or her choice? The answer may come down to logistics: If you’re a law firm, it may be relatively simple for employees to work on individual unpaid projects. If you’re a website developer, you may need multiple people to work on the same project (i.e., to design and develop the site and write the copy). Consider the scope of the pro bono projects you plan to tackle and come up with schedules and time frames for completion.
Find the right client. You may pitch a client for pro bono work directly, based on an existing relationship, or you may be able to build more buzz about your company by promoting your pro bono mission on your company’s website. If you choose the latter option, be specific about the type of clients you seek (such as nonprofits with assets of $100,000 or less). Ask prospective clients to fill out a detailed form regarding the services they need, so that you can tell immediately whether it’s worth pursuing a pro bono relationship. The PR firm Weber Shandwick provides a detailed intake form here.
Create a contract. It’s important to outline the terms of volunteer projects in advance, particularly when your company isn’t being paid for its services. Create a contract that clearly states what is — and isn’t — included in your pro bono service package. (For instance, you’ll provide a website design for free, but the client must pay for its own web hosting.) Make sure to outline the particulars of the specific project, tally up its estimated value, and include disclaimers that will protect you if things go wrong. Here’s a sample pro bono contract from Business of Design Online.