Pitfalls of Pro-Bono Arrangements

By March 22, 2016Blog

The quest for pro-bono work is a mythical holy grail in the nonprofit sector. Pro-bono contributions of design, marketing, or communications work are alluring because they can offer an organization the opportunity to work with rock-star firms or to tackle projects they believe they otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford. Pro-bono offers can be full of pitfalls for the unwary, however, because pro-bono work can set up an unsustainable working model and build unrealistic expectations within the organization. In the long run, this has the potential to do more harm than good if not handled carefully.

That’s not to say that pro-bono arrangements should be rejected out of hand, but they should be taken on with careful consideration. If your plans for design, marketing, and digital content management are part of a sustainable content ecosystem, your communications program can benefit from an occasional shot in the arm from a firm or agency willing to offer pro-bono work. But you have to understand the overall framework and the pitfalls so you can avoid them while maximizing the advantages.


  • When you contract with a communications firm, design agency, or web development group on a pro-bono or deeply discounted basis, there is a risk that your work will be put on a back burner once more lucrative work presents itself. You may want to review the firm’s track record on this front, if possible.
  • If you decide you want to work with the firm on an ongoing basis, you may not be able to afford it. It’s basic business economics: Rock-star agencies with an impressive office and a large permanent workforce also have overhead expenses to match, which means their clients have to foot the bill for those trappings of success. Also, if the agency offers pro-bono work, they have to cover the expenses associated with that work by charging their paying clients accordingly. These factors set up a dynamic that may be unsustainable for your nonprofit, and unsustainable situations should be avoided.
  • If your organization can’t afford to hire the agency, and the pool of pro-bono goodwill runs out, your organization will need to move on to another firm or agency. This is another unsustainable practice, because working with a new firm for every project can be costly: Human and intellectual capital are lost every time you switch firms. These are valuable resources that should be conserved if sustainability is front-of-mind.
  • Finally, a reliance on pro-bono work could establish an unreasonable expectation within your organization’s leadership of expecting this work to always be performed for free or at a deeply discounted rate. This makes it difficult to secure appropriate funding during the budgeting process. These expectations can also make it easier to justify cutting funds earmarked for design or communications during lean times and harder to win them back when times are good.

In the end, design, marketing, and communications should be part of the regular course of business for your organization and shouldn’t be left to chance or the potentially temporary whim of a firm looking to do some good through a pro-bono arrangement. This work is an investment in the organization’s future and should be afforded the same careful consideration as, say, investing endowment capital. The difference here is that the currency is intellectual capital rather than financial capital. And considering intellectual capital is an important and often undervalued part of building a sustainable content ecosystem.

Check back for our next post later this month, which will explore ways that pro-bono arrangements can be managed to your advantage and can be folded into your sustainable content ecosystem.

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