The Real Danger (and Opportunity) of Pro Bono Consulting

Much has been said about the dangers of consulting pro bono: it may diminish the perceived value of your brand or service, it can lower your short-term and long-term revenue growth by creating a reputation for free service.

All of these warnings are valid.  But I think that they can be easily navigated without completely doing away with pro bono work altogether.  From my (albeit limited) experience, I believe there is a way to leverage the offer of free service to help build a portfolio, build clientele, and open up potential relationships with future clients.

The actual danger of pro bono work is serving clients that provide no indication of grasping the real value of the service rendered.

Even more concerning are the slightly more severe case in which a client responds to the “free” offer as if it was really just an implicit admission that “any college student could do this in like 30 minutes.”  Graphic designers and web developers are painfully familiar with this attitude.

So how do you avoid this situation?  First, you need to come up with ways to interview your clients without them realizing it.  As you walk them through your past work or concepts for the project at hand, listen carefully to the responses you receive.

For myself, I have learned to nix the discovery process after a few soft attempts to persuade a client of my value.  At that point, I just politely suggest alternatives and end it there. It is not because I don’t believe in my work and it is not because I don’t want to put up a fight.  It is because I will ultimately fail any client and fail my reputation if I decide to move forward with a client who thinks my work ought to be provided for free.

“Free” makes sense if, and only if, a potential client meets these requirements:

  • Client sees the need for your service or at least willing to learn more about the potential benefits you offer of and threats (of doing without you)
  • Client is willing to provide constructive feedback at the outset and responds positively to an informal interview questionnaire.
  • Client shows some interest in learning how to contextualize your service within the broader context of their business and maximize the potential benefits.
  • Client is unable to move forward with a project financially and the project is light-weight enough to tackle for free (or can be scaled down appropriately)

That’s it.  It sounds too simple.  But from my experience, it is really the attitude and willingness to partner that counts.  It isn’t readiness to spend money or eagerness to get a project underway.

It is the simple things on which communication is built that have defined my best pro bono projects and developed into the most valuable and enjoyable business relationships.