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I have debated whether or not doing pro bono work for non profit or community organizations is a good idea or not. On the one hand, I would view it as a 'donation' of my time and services to a cause I believe in. In the other hand, I am concerned about getting into situations where I get taken advantage of by an organization. I am also concerned that working for free can tend to hurt the freelancing profession as a whole, and does reinforce the idea that freelancers are cheap and not valuable.

So, charity work. Good idea or bad idea, and why?

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    Jessica Hische made a great flowchart for figuring that out. There are some times that it can be beneficial, but you have to take a unbiased look at your life and the project to determine that. – Brian Feb 10 '14 at 21:18
  • @Brian Very humourous and useful, but not really an answer. Converting to comment – Canadian Luke Feb 11 '14 at 2:00
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This is somewhat of an opinion-based question. So, my answer will be primarily opinion-based as well.

Pro Bono means for the good of all. There are many non-profit or not-for-profit organizations which are not "for the good of all" but rather the "good of our select group".

It's important to first realize that many non-profit organizations still make a profit. The difference is their tax status and the idea that they reinvest the profit into the organization rather than distributing dividends to shareholders or owners. That does not mean they have no money. Many "non-profit" organizations pay their employees very handsome salaries. You may be interested in the salary studies for nonprofit executives (view the PDF link at that page).

I'm generalizing here. There are non-profit organizations which are solely focused on their mission. But I feel it's a common misconception that "nonprofit" means "no money".

My point is many nonprofit organizations are merely businesses with a special tax status. That does not mean they can't afford to pay for services just like any other business. They all ask for reduced pricing or free work, but the reality is they have funds they could allocate if they saw the need as important enough. This is no different than any client I've ever come across.

That being posted....

I have donated services.

I have worked at reduced pricing for some organizations.

I have worked at full rate for nonprofit organizations.

I do not see any detrimental aspects to working for nonprofit organizations you believe in and wish to support.

Donating specialized services on a volunteer basis (or reduced cost) is merely one way you can give to charity other than your physical presence. In fact, it is often a better use of those with specialized skills the organization is in need of. Grassroots.org is an organization specifically designed to match up those with special skills with non-profit or volunteer organizations in need of those skills.

It is important to treat any donations or reduced cost work as real work though. With full project specifications, timelines, and budgets.

You need the full project scope so you can cap what you are doing and prevent the ever-running project scope which may happen. Set hard milestones or finalization factors and once they are met close the project. Don't let the organization stray, they will tend to without any direct malice. You need to manage them because without pricing involved, they may tend to just keep asking for more. You can always work on multiple projects, but don't let it become one ever-increasing morphing thing.

Really the only difference on your end should be the invoice. Either it is due or not. If you have an agreement to donate services, it's a good idea to still send the invoice but mark it as "donated" or indicate a discount if working at reduced rates. This way the organization has an understanding of what you are doing for them beyond the actual work.

Even if you don't charge the organization a penny, you need to have them agree on the price of what you are providing (tax purposes). If you donate a $500 item to your local Goodwill (assuming US locale) that is a tax deduction. Check with your accountant, but any donated services may also alter your tax situation depending upon the organization.

In short, No. I do not believe supporting any nonprofit or not-for-profit organization you wish to help is detrimental to any industry as a whole. It is only working for commercial, sales/service, profit-driven, businesses which lowers the standards other clients have for freelancing. And to be honest all the "contest" sites on the web do more harm there than you ever will.

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    +1: The only thing here I wouldn't advise is having deadlines, unless they are deadlines you are setting on the client to give you things you need to do the work. If I did another free project, I'd never want to be in a position where I had to disregard paying work (and maybe more than that) to meet a deadline on a project I am not being paid to do. – David Jan 16 '14 at 18:28
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Bad idea - unless the project is very small, the scope is very well-defined, and you get to work on your own terms.

To get some work into my UX design portfolio, I worked for free for a non-profit and for a club run by volunteers. While I value the experience of both projects, both projects had significant problems with scope creep, as other answers to this question have described.

What follows is my experience with scope creep on these projects:

Non-profit redesign project: I was working with 3 other people: a developer, an artist, and someone who was there as another idea guy. Due to their priorities changing over time, none of them finished the project with me. I had to take on all of the development work, which meant working full time for free for several more weeks. The organization was going through very difficult times at that moment. This led me to stop work on other projects for several weeks to help them during those times.

Club redesign project: Scope creep happened in two ways here. First, this was originally just a design project but I took on many of the development duties as well to make sure the sites could go live. This included months of bug fixes and cross-browser testing. Second, my proposal did not provide for additional revisions, but the client had me do several before they would launch the sites. I did follow through with these revisions, which made the design and my design skills much better but resulted in a lot more working for free than I had planned.

I would advise now that anyone working for free should only do one revision on their terms and on their schedule (no deadlines). Please also read Requests for Free Work: Surprising Revelations and its comments.

Overall, the added responsibilities in these projects and the additional revisions that one of the clients wanted more than doubled the amount of time that I had planned to work for free. Although I'm not completely opposed to working for free, I'm not planning to work for free again for a while, if ever.

Fortunately, I've finished my obligations for both of these clients now and I'm still friends with both of these clients.

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You need to set GOOD BOUNDARIES because if you run into the wrong organization you can get suckered in to need, need, need and cut yourself short.

For example - doing a web site. You build it, and turn it over. Who maintains it in the long run? Does the organization call you at a moment's notice, and expect your full cooperation, because a year later someone finds out that you forgot to put a period at the end of a sentence?

Keep the scope tight. A fixed start and a fixed end. Don't be confused by "non profit". I guarantee you - the landlord, the water and power company, and the phone company that the non profit pays each month for services aren't a bit confused. It's just that the non profit doesn't deal with these organizations face-to-face, so there are less chances for them to ask for a "deal" which really ends up being a "steal".

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IF you earn enough working without this charity,
IF you have free time to do this charity work,
IF you believe in charity and wants to contribute your community,
IF they will be thankful and not spit in your face,
IF they will understand you're working for free and would not bother you with small things like when they're paying you,

THEN I strongly suggest you do it. If all of the above is true, you will feel like a better person helping your community.

Just establish good boundaries with them so that they know your working for free and you may not work or stop work or refuse work ANY TIME YOU LIKE.

I had some bad experience with such work because I did not set boundaries and they treated me like they're paying me.

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