Uncharitable Charitable Design

Like many people, I always say, “Never work for free.” Like many people, I break that rule when it comes to a good cause or meeting women. So far, I’ve only been screwed… by the good causes, that is.

This winter, I spent three days working for a nationwide charitable initiative called “Give Camp.” A very noble effort with some of the most talented people in town but there was a dark side – the clients. The charity identified several local organizations that needed their web sites redesigned and some applications for things like tracking volunteers and donations. We split into teams and for three days, designed, coded, and ate wonderfully bad food while putting our best efforts into helping a good cause.

On the final day, we showed the work to representatives of the organizations and were proud to hear the “ooos” and “aaahs,” not only from those people but also from the members of the other teams. We left; elated at the good we had done and the people these sites and apps would help.

After a few weeks, I decided to check into the site I had helped redesign. It hadn’t been uploaded. I wrote to the man who put together the weekend and he responded that he would check into it. No response. I wrote again a few months later and said I needed to know why it wasn’t used so I could finish my article on how other people around the world could organize or volunteer for Give Camp. He never responded.

I guess, while the representative of the organization oooed and aaahed, the rest of the board of directors booed and blahed. So, stay with your crappy site with horrid navigation, wasted space and misplaced menus. Still, it was fun and good karma doing it!

It’s not the first time I’ve walked away frustrated by a pro bono design job. It seems I get pro bonoed most of the time. Good causes and, unfortunately, bad people behind them.

Is There A Bright Side?

Despite my experiences, there have been some very rewarding charitable experiences. Most have been on the side of volunteering for design organizations where I was in control of design pieces done for flyers, posters and invitations. Years with organizations like the Graphic Artists Guild, The Society of Illustrators and AIGA gave me ties to some great professionals, learning tools I could not have gotten elsewhere and lasting relationships with people in my field. It also put my name out there, so much so, people knew me before they knew my work.

instantShift - Uncharitable Charitable Design

Volunteering for a creative organization helps not just you but also the industry and that’s invaluable. Working for rights, laws and elevating those around you for a stronger creative front is something that will bring little thanks from others but it is very self-satisfying. The thanks are when you get higher rates and enjoy the protection of a united front made up of all creatives. Creative organizations are imperative to our success and volunteers must run them. Aside from a lot of sacrifice of one’s time and hard work, the parties are incredible!

When you work for a professional organization you will create a network of some of the strongest people in your field. The spectrum runs from up and comers to top established practitioners. Networking is important for any business so you can’t beat the fast track to having your name out in the eye of the industry, as it will also reach those who do the hiring.

There’s also an education you won’t receive in art school. Serving on several committees, I found that learning by keeping my mouth shut and ears open, which has never been my strong point, was an accelerated learning process one would have to learn by screwing up royally in one’s own business. While serving on a professional practices committee, I was able to learn through other people’s mistakes and hear the information the organization’s attorney had for these cases. It wasn’t long before I was asked to appear in court as an expert witness for business practices.

The dark side of working for these organizations is that the board of directors are usually split among those eager to help the industry or cause and those who have no power in their own lives and have the time and desire to volunteer for a power position over others. It can be aggravating and, in my experience, it has led to power-struggles that have an entire board turn over every couple of years as those interested in selfless helping get tired of fighting those who want to keep the status quo… and their power.

So, my advice is that you can’t fight those who want to cling to power so badly their very being lay in the balance. It’s another good lesson – stay out of people politics. It is something you will run into in every job, freelance assignment… and basically everything, every day, everywhere. Just put in a few years and count yourself as lucky you survived with your sanity and enjoy the warm feeling of having done something good.

A Good Lesson In Pro Bono work.

If you haven’t heard of Paul Rand, you need to read his story and familiarize yourself with his work. He struggled to enter the creative field and due to his pro bono work, he was launched into the limelight and at age 23, became the art director of Esquire magazine.

Mr. Rand did cover designs for Direction magazine. It was a small cultural publication but the cover designs caught the eye of some impressive names and it gave him a strong portfolio that led him to bigger and better. The deal was as it should be with free work – he designed it for free but had total creative control.

Gaining total creative control was probably much easier in Mr. Rand’s time. Many people complain that once the personal computer entered the creative field and eventually every home around the globe, people all of the sudden “got creative abilities.” With layout and photo-editing programs given away with every computer purchase, the ability to make a garage sale flyer entitled the masses to the feeling they were “designers.”

When asking for free work, as the saying goes, “beggars can’t be choosers.” Remember that when you are asked to give up a fee for your efforts. If that isn’t acceptable to those who feel you don’t deserve a penny, rupee, euro, quid or sheckle, then they won’t respect your work or you. So why do it? When they say, “I could do it myself,” tell them to do it. They will have several reasons why they really want you to do it.

I have often written or told students that one doesn’t need to give away work to have a professional portfolio that will impress. Most art directors want to see your design thought and process and how you execute problem solving. I’ve suggested taking a published piece or web site and redesigning it (making sure you are not showing the redesign to the person who designed it in the first place) to show your design thought and process. It’s just like a tutorial on a web site. Show the steps in how it all came together. That is all you need to impress another creative.

The lesson of having published and live work is when you have to impress non-creatives. Many people will only give you credibility if you have proved yourself elsewhere… they just don’t need to know that you didn’t get paid! Like Mr. Rand, a bevy of magazine covers can do wonders, as can some flyers, logos and web sites.

Your uncle wants a logo for his business? Treat him like a client. Tell him he needs a brand with all the material any professional business has. Create a logo, stationery, web site, Twitter page, Facebook page, etc. Don’t let him argue. You are in control because HE needs YOU! The first thing is to let him know that YOU are the creative and he will take what you give him. What will he do if he wants to control the output or play “art director?” Will he argue that it will “give you good experience in dealing with clients?” Sure he will, but you are in charge… when there’s no charge. The worst that can happen is he complains to your parents.

I volunteer my time for the Dad’s Club at my kids’ school and when they found out that I’m a designer, the requests started coming in for flyer design. I did it for several reasons. Firstly, because I get complete creative control, which is fun and it helps out our initiatives for the students, which are our kids. Second, because my kids are proud their dad did these “cool” posters and such. Third, because my business link is on everything I create and it’s made for some interesting connections.

Schools certainly deserve free work and most of the time, if I… er, I mean everyone restrains my… er, I mean everyone’s weird sense of humor, total creative control is not a problem. An old friend of mine is a very talented and award winning videographer and designer. He volunteered to design the yearbook for his daughter’s school but one of the mothers on the committee was a monster and wanted to play art director. Naturally he refused and she did all she could to derail all of his design decisions. Luckily, he loves a good creative fight with a moron (which reminds me of our days in art school and an incident where we planned hitting a teacher in the face with a lemon pie, as if we were planning the raid on Entebbe… but I digress) and he had no trouble having his designs grace the front and back cover of the yearbook. Sometimes a little struggle is the juice of life!

Where Are The Best Free Projects?

instantShift - Uncharitable Charitable Design

There’s always lot’s of free work to be done. Even on sites like eLance or oDesk, people ask for low fees, so why not agree to a low fee but all creative control? The worst that can happen is they refuse.

If you have kids, volunteer to do some work for their school. A few hundred parents will see the flyers, posters, T-shirts, etc. and there’s a good chance some of them will need your talent. If you don’t have kids… adopt some and send them to school. Send them to several and double or triple your chances to have your work seen!

Do you have a favorite pub or restaurant where they know you? Complain their menu is crappy or they need a web site and tell them you’ll do it in exchange for some food or drinks. If they don’t see the problem with their bad design, point it out and ask other customers to comment on the black type on a dark red background or if they would like to see the menu or specials on the web site… if there is one!

Sometimes it’s best to do the work first and offer it to someone. Show them what you can do with the red menu with black type. Show them what a web site looks like without prancing glitter unicorn gifs. Show them what their ad COULD look like. The work is done and all they have to do is say, “okay!”

They might have no money to pay you, so either say; “you owe me one” or “pay me when you can.”

You can also ask for some copies of piece when they are printed or a link to your own web site. Consider the pro bono work free advertising for your own services!

“Never Work For Free!”

Don’t confuse the ever repeated, “never work for free” statement with pro bono or furthering your own career through well thought-out self-interest. Only you can decide what’s best for you.

instantShift - Uncharitable Charitable Design

Also, don’t confuse pro bono for a charity or non-profit organization with free work for a startup or small business (even a friend or relative aren’t charities… which will make it “bro’ bono”). You will run into the usual promises from business people who want to pay little or none: “plenty of money later,” “a great opportunity” or “I’ll remember you when my business gets going.”

You can agree to do it under those promises, which no one I know has ever seen come true, or you can attach the agreement that you have complete control and add a link to your web site. Again, free advertising can be a good trade-off for earned income that can be taxed.

In the end, there are those who can pay but won’t and there are those who can’t pay and need help. There are businesses that are just cheap and there are charities that have nothing. With businesses, you can make your own demands. They may want to keep searching until they find slave labor. With charities, they have few to little options.

It stands to be mentioned that pro bono work is a tricky thing if you deduct it as a “charitable donation” on your taxes, if your government allows such deductions, of course. In America, the Internal Revenue Service does not recognize giving one’s time as a monetary service. Artists, for example, can deduct the paint and canvas for a painting they donate to a charity nut if someone were to buy the same painting, let it rise in value and THEN donate it to charity, THEY can deduct the full market value from their taxes. Well, we didn’t get into the creative field for the money, right?

Even though I did mention trading work for advertising in a previous paragraph, ideally it is income and should be declared on one’s tax return. The costs of advertising, however, due to the fact that you are not paying for it, can be a bit tricky. I suggest a professional accountant for all the facts and obligations involved with free and pro bono work. If you’re lucky, you can trade design services for the tax preparation!

As I pointed out in my opening rant, it’s not a happy playground all of the time. Unfortunately, Give Camp didn’t bother to make certain demands of the clients chosen. That was a big mistake and they will have fewer volunteers next year. There are charities that will continue to make ridiculous demands after the work is complete. In those cases, you are free to walk away. The important thing to remember is that YOU are in control of your generosity. When demands are made with which you don’t feel comfortable, you are not losing a client. Just say, “I can’t do that!”

If you are challenged, then don’t do it. It’s an empowering feeling when you walk away and you’ll be helping the charity after all – you’re helping them learn to appreciate volunteers.

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  1. This really was a very mild rant. I sure a request for battlefield stories could make a very funny collection of short stories.

    I also do a lot of pro bono work and over the years I have set some rules for myself. 1) I self-enforce the 50 Mile rule religiously. I will not do work for local groups. They somehow feel that it is my civic responsibility and next year they will be angry when I am unavailable. 2) I always negotiate a “value” ahead of time. When the project is finished, I will get a thank you letter for donating $XX.xx in design. 3) I limit the time that will be dedicated to the project and 4) I set one person to whom I’m accountable.

    They do have to be groups and projects that excite me, and I always have an exit strategy so there is no confusion that I am not a full time volunteer in a never ending story.

    —As for those startups or small businesses, whenever this comes up (about once a month), I simply offer to put it in a contract. “I will work at a reduced rate for now, but get an exclusive contract for X number of years until the reduced fee has been compensated for…”

  2. Hi Speider! Lot of interesting points have been raised in this post. I like your way of explanation. Nice post.

  3. I loved this rant, albeit a relatively restrained one from my old pal and fellow malcontent.

    The most ridiculous part of my experience in donating my time and effort in providing those yearbook cover designs was having to become a detective; investigating and discovering a plot to keep my pro bono work from seeing the light of day. This was my daughter’s elementary school for fuck’s sake! A crazed mommy on the committee was waging a secret war to make sure her amateurish submission trumped mine. Some said I should have walked away, but nooooo. As Spieder said, I love a good creative fight and I won out, but not without wondering why I should ever do anything for free again.

    The reality is that I have NEVER gotten a gig, a job or any kind of reasonable amount of work, as a result of donating my time. Let’s face it, some people view that as a type of weakness. I prefer to think that those of you who view my generosity as a weakness can step outside and prepare to get your sorry ass kicked up and down the street.

  4. Well done, the designs are really nice and appreciable too…..

  5. Nice article for any designer, here are lot of nice points n tips for them! it will be more useful to them :)

  6. Superb article and its a best reference inspiration for design lovers, good advise are always appreciative. Thanks

  7. Superb article and its a best reference inspiration for design lovers, good advise are always appreciative. Thanks

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