Pro Bono Sucks and Everyone’s to Blame

Jonty Sharples
Jun 2, 2016 · 18 min read

The past few weeks have been unusually busy on the incoming communications front. Some run of the mill new business conversations have been punctuated by a couple of unexpected emails landing in the hello@ inbox.

The client meetings followed a familiar pattern — limited time, limited budget, and huge ambition, although I seem to remember this has been the case for almost forever. These are knowns, as much as I know the sun will rise tomorrow morning. These are the same goals and limitations we deal with on a regular basis. They’re a commonality across the sector we’ve chosen to work alongside, and the nature of many of the organisations who work within it; they needed it yesterday and it needs to do all of the things a for-profit site would usually do, plus a few more, but for almost no money.

Each and every one of these organisations make remarkable contributions to social good and digital ‘stuff’ needs to be well-considered and initially fairly light touch. Big bangs — those sites that launch in a flurry of PR activity tend not to benefit anyone in this instance. It’s probably why I enjoy the work we do and the clients we do it for — big bangs are something of a rarity, and certainly something we advise against undertaking without an appropriate amount of testing and validation.

The hello@ emails were somewhat different. Two stood out as they were asking for free stuff. Not the run of the mill consultation or advice, which we do as a matter of course, but free product strategy and delivery.

While we’re fully signed up members of the ‘delivering something meaningful whatever the budget’ party, I draw the line at pro bono.


For those of you who just raised an eyebrow, or who took a sharp intake of breath, let me explain.

The ‘creative’ industry has been dining out on pro bono for decades. It starts with paying interns little to nothing for their time working long hours and taking on all the donkey work no one else wants to touch, and it works its way up to well seasoned professionals with years of experience, who are lured in on the promise that if something comes of the pitch or initial engagement, they’ll be brought in at their full rate.

Do the work, it’s a really exciting opportunity, and it’ll be great for your book / portfolio.

If you’ve never heard those words, you’re lucky.


From an industry perspective, pro bono work sets something of a damaging precedent — why pay when there’s always someone prepared to deliver for free? It also has the ability to harm much needed future funding, just by floating the false pretence that this is a ride that will never end, there will always be someone waiting in the wings to provide a quality service for exactly zero money.

One of our clients is now in the rather invidious position of scraping funds from other established projects and endeavours in order to have enough in the bank to redevelop a now rather janky site that was delivered pro bono. Absolutely not their fault, I should add. Their predicament is down to a blend of inexperience with digital projects and a supplier who did what they thought what was right for the charity without actually bothering to ask anyone who mattered.

They’ve lived with it for a couple of years and now it needs to grow in line with their organisation, business, and user needs. Because they never paid a penny for it and weren’t really involved in the creative process, they have almost nothing allocated for this kind of digital engagement in their budget. This is compounded by their pretty limited understanding of the amount of effort that creating a reimagined, and fit for purpose thing is likely to cost.

The website could have evolved piecemeal, a little bit here and a little bit there, but didn’t ‘because pro bono’.

To an agency / freelancer (or supplier) beyond profits are often seen as an interesting thing on the side or a portfolio piece, or both. They’re often the downtime. And downtime isn’t often downtime for long.

Downtime can be interrupted at any moment. That super smart lady who’s working on your brand strategy might suddenly get pulled on to a paying job. No more downtime. That lad who’s developing the front end for your website might suddenly decide he’s no longer interested in working for the agency employing him. He leaves, and given that he wasn’t really that busy — apart from some pro bono downtime work — he’s not replaced. Suddenly there’s no one there who has capacity to continue the work. And if the supplier feels a pang of guilt the work will be picked up after hours and rushed through. They’re out of downtime. And if the team is replaced, your continuity’s shot.

Unless your supplier is wholly committed to prioritising your project, delivering quality and seeing things through, you’ll be left hanging, and when there’s a protracted pause in proceedings momentum evaporates.


The thing is, delivering almost any kind of project by allocating downtime to it doesn’t really work. We’ve all got a stack of ideas that require downtime to complete, but unless that time is carved out and made sacrosanct, those projects won’t come to fruition. The same principle absolutely applies to digital pro bono work. I’ve always liked the principle and spirit of pro bono work, and in the past, at other agencies, I’ve encouraged us to take on pro bono for those moments when teams were less busy with paid projects. In some instances I think we delivered, in others I think we could have done a lot more and been less ivory-towerish about the whole process, and really opened our doors to the clients we were working alongside. But over the past two years I’ve seen so much awful implementation and execution of digital stuff, I can’t say I believe this kind of thing is any good for either party.

Where projects have been completed, they’ve been handed over with a smile and the supplier has sauntered off to pat themselves on the back, safe in the knowledge that they’ve done a good thing, which in many respects they haven’t. Project have been delivered, but consideration for the broader service; adoption ladders, donation patterns, and the like are often brushed over or deemed to sit outside the scope of what can reasonably be offered ‘for free’.

For (most) suppliers the idea of using a phased approach to delivering pro bono projects isn’t something they’re keen on, and I can see why. This engagement needs to be fire and forget; you work with us you get the thing we can afford to deliver in the timeframe, and for our own benefit it’ll all turn up in one big lump. You’re getting a Big Bang launch whether you like it or not. If we find ourselves with capacity down the line maybe we’ll come in and fix x, y, and z. Maybe.

Which gives rise to the question, why do suppliers offer their services pro bono? Is it purely altruistic? Maybe a bit. Is it to give more junior teams a crack at running the show? I’ve certainly seen that happen. But more often than not it’s to ride on the coattails of a good cause, and have a worthy brand and case study to stick on their website.

It’s the very same reason agencies run — do a good, write a punchy press release, sit back and watch the column inches roll in — all grist to the mill. This kind of output also affords suppliers the creative freedom to do whatever they like, which can only be a good thing when it comes to brand recognition and recall. These endeavours have a shelf life. They usually launch some time early December — primed for the last editions of that year’s Campaign or PR Week to hit the stands — and are done and dusted before the cheap fizz and smoked salmon come out of the fridge.

Joint London

But as we all know, in the real world, projects don’t just end. Or at least they shouldn’t. There’s no ribbon snipping or champagne to be smashed against the hull. As a supplier you have a responsibility to at least offer to be on hand for your client beyond launch. That could be wrapped up in an SLA or just by ensuring that you’ll act in the organisation’s best interest, willing to help out whenever you can.

What I’ve seen to date is far too much work chucked over the fence — little to no ongoing communication, and at best a smidgen of consideration given to what the client might need in the future, be that; technical support, updates, or ongoing education and training.


shows that 58% of charities are without digital skills, and over half of charities don’t believe that having a website would help increase their funding. They need help, but they also desperately require hand holding and education throughout the development process, so they’re not set adrift with the shiny thing you just made and no instructions on how to operate it.

I’m reminded of the recent soundbite from , when pressed on his belief that selling BHS to Dominic Chappell (a “twice-bankrupt yacht enthusiast with no retail experience”) was a sound business decision.

Sir Philip Green, Chairman, Arcadia Group (Centre) — Financial Times

“If I give you my plane, right, and you tell me you’re a great driver, and then if you crash it into the first f***ing mountain, is that my fault?”

If I give you this website, and you claim to understand how the internet works, then you go and break the thing I made you, is that my fault? No, it’s not, but I should have been mindful enough to see that scenario taking place.

But on the whole suppliers aren’t that kind of scum, and the folk who run beyond profit organisations aren’t that misguided. More often than not those fine people don’t have a full grasp of how the thing you’ve delivered operates under the hood or what’s likely to be required of them to maintain it going forward.

There are always going to be instances where a CMS is misused, or the internet falls over, or someone’s cousin has a pop at spinning up a new page based on no other template ever created. Mountains are everywhere, and it’s not that hard to crash the metaphorical plane if you’ve never flown one before.

The websites I’ve seen in the last 12 months that have been the victims of lackadaisical pro bono have all launched satisfactorily. Poorly built, the lot of them, but they’re seaworthy in so far as they don’t leak…much. They’re just unsupported, and the organisations left in charge only have a rudimentary grasp of how to not sink or crash them.


So now what? Unavoidably, pro bono work isn’t likely to stop any time soon. No point in having a rant and not proposing a few solutions.

1) Articulate what’s needed

Organisations: Write a brief. If you’ve never written one before think about your business and your users. Who are they? What are their goals? What features might they need in order to complete those goals? And what outcomes should you see as a result of implementing those features. A bullet point list is just fine, don’t labour the process.

Don’t restrict yourself to thinking about a website or functionality; a supplier should be able to manage much of the problem solving and join the dots.

Try to build a picture of what’s required, and have an idea of what’s out there already, who’s competing in your sector, and what seems to be working for them.

2) Act responsibly

Suppliers: Treat the organisation receiving pro bono effort in exactly the same way you would that dream client. That doesn’t just mean making decent coffee and getting the posh biscuits out for meetings, it means staffing the work appropriately.

If you’re going to use more junior members of your team, make sure there’s reliable, senior oversight and proper management. Just because these organisations aren’t paying you, it doesn’t mean you should let quality slide or lay on the B team. As a bit of a motivator, you should remember that your reputation is at stake. Staff appropriately and work out a way of supporting the project beyond launch.

3) Be thoughtful

Suppliers: Just because there’s no money on the table don’t treat this like canvas for all those ideas your paying clients have rejected. Don’t hold back on being creative, but this isn’t the time for everyone to chip in and design Homer’s car.

Don’t build a Homer. Unless that’s what’s required, of course.

4) Don’t just do it

Avoid. ()

Organisations: If you’re going to accept pro bono work, treat the supplier in exactly the same way you would were you paying them for their services. Be as gracious as you feel you should be, but don’t skimp on the rigour. This isn’t a time for rushing.

Get past all the soft soak nonsense, the fancy biscuits, the giant linotype motivational messages, and the adorable office dog/cat/rabbit and ask them to get into the guts of the project, the nitty gritty. Who’s your point of contact, who’s doing the work, by when, and can you see a project plan?

The worst that can happen is they’ll think you’re being picky, demanding, and ungrateful, but this is your organisation, and there are people who depend on you. If you end up being a slave to an arrogant supplier and a poorly built digital thing, then it’s doing precisely what it shouldn’t be doing — it’s sucking your time when it should be giving it back.

For us at least, a good rule of thumb for a successful project is that client should get to do more of the stuff they’re really good at, and less of the stuff computers are good at.

No matter what your supplier might say, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with you being closely involved in the creative process, all the way along. Design needs to be collaborative, otherwise you’re signing up to a dictatorship. If you continually find yourself shut out or overtly patronised, then you should think long and hard about whether the supplier responding to your brief is the right one for the job. They might not be. This is a reality.

5) Invest in legal

Both of you: Contracts and SOWs. I know plenty of people who think that this kind of documentation is restrictive and bureaucratic, but they’re there to provide a structure and a level of reassurance. All relationships need a structure, especially ones that can be as impactful as one delivering a revolutionary new digital property.

Organisations: Even if your supplier thinks it unnecessary, get these drawn up, and get them signed. A contract and SOW should ensure that there’s a proper commitment, both time and resource, and a clear set of tasks to be completed.

Netflix

If you’ve never seen a digital or creative contract before there are plenty of pretty lightweight ones out there you can use as a boilerplate. Have a look on for examples. It might even be worth asking a few solicitors if they’ll give your contract a once over. Oddly, I’ve only heard good things about legal pro bono. Maybe it’s because it’s baked into the DNA of the profession.

6) Show some respect

Suppliers: Sadly respect isn’t a one way thing. It’s up to organisations to commit to a process, too. It’s all well and good for me to go on some kind of righteous crusade, lambasting you lot for playing fast and loose with projects to (occasionally) serve your own ends, but sometimes clients can be a challenge, too. This can often be chalked up to inexperience — no use jumping in with your post-its, boxes and arrows, and user-journey-me-bobs if you’ve not taken the time to do the groundwork and educate them first.

You’re doing a good thing, it’s really valuable, and in some instances can be truly game changing for grassroots organisations. Explaining how you’re going to go from point A to point B, and bringing your client along for the ride will only enhance the experience for all concerned. Remember the Lloyds stats.

7) Ask around

Reddit

Organisations: Don’t be afraid to get a second opinion. Be diplomatic, and remember that there are many ways to approach the design and build process, but do ask around.

Last week we helped out a not for profit. They’d an open brief which we looked at, and assessed a series of (anonymised) proposals for what was looking like a pretty complex platform.

From a handful of proposals there was only one that wouldn’t have ended in catastrophe. Our advice was if you’re going to move forward go with this supplier, and retreat to a safe distance from the others.

By saying our door’s always open I doubt we’ll be deluged with queries, but I’d rather spend half an hour or so sense checking proposals than see an organisation with limited funds get sold or donated an absolute turkey.

8) Develop a long term relationship and a phased approach to delivery

Suppliers: This is definitely a bit of challenge if you’re delivering pro bono as a downtime thing. I’m not saying you need to be working together forever, but please look at delivering over a period of time.

If you’re not gathering data, testing and learning, you’re exposing the organisation to risk and potential failure down the line. 18 months in and they’ll likely need something more done. They need tools in place to be able to make a call on what’s necessary. Creating a project backlog (needs, goals, features) doesn’t take long, and making sure the client has Analytics setup — and understands what it can tell them — will go a long way to making the decision process far easier for them further down the line.

9) Make it portable

Suppliers: It may be that you’ll be free to help out again in future or that you’re keen to be that organisation’s digital partner. You might not. It might be that the organisation has a budget to engage another supplier or hire permanent staff. Whatever. When you deliver the ‘finished’ product please make sure you deliver all the assets, too. Far too many suppliers build websites, help put them live, and then walk away. All the relevant stuff might be in a repo, but the client doesn’t know how to access it, and they don’t have access to any kind of rudimentary asset library or style guide.

10) Take pride in your work

Suppliers: Make the thing you provide performant. Over 100 requests to load a homepage is not good enough. Multiple requests for CSS files, no. This should be one file and one request. Multiple requests for JavaScript files, no. This should be one file and one request. Multiple requests for layout image files, also no. These should be a single CSS sprite. You get the idea.

If you’re not already creating stuff with Progressive Enhancement in mind, now’s the time to start, and if you’re not building to web standards, shame on you.

11) Kick the tyres

Organisations: Do a bit of due diligence. If you’re being offered help with a digital thing by a print agency, do make sure they know how to build stuff properly. A really straightforward way of doing this is to look at their own site and some of their most recent work and dump the URL into . Without wishing to go into too much detail, if they’re getting C’s and below and you see lots of red or orange, you might want to think twice about accepting the offer of help. Just because it’s free it doesn’t mean it should be shoddily put together.

Equally, you should know who your supplier works with day-to-day. It could be a bit embarrassing if you — working as you do in the social good space — launch a new website and it’s only then that you realise it’s been delivered by a supplier who has ‘defence’, tobacco, alcohol, oil, short term loans, and gambling clients on their books.

12) Avoid proprietary tech solutions

Both of you: Open Source. We’re pretty (read: almost) agnostic when it comes to languages and platforms, but we draw the line at anything that requires an ongoing license fee. This can sometimes be a bit of an unexpected cost, and it also restricts future development in a way that’s not exactly fair.

Suppliers: You really shouldn’t be tying your clients to proprietary stuff. It’s not fair, and this process is really all about being fair.

13) Everything has a price

Organisations: While this engagement might not be costing you anything, be aware of the value of the work. Make sure you have a decent idea of what continuous maintenance and updates are likely to cost you. It’s essential you plan for the future, at an absolute minimum there needs to be a line item in your forecast to account for ongoing development.

14) Build strong relationships

Both of you: If you enter into a pro bono relationship candidly, and with clear, well articulated goals and outcomes, the risk of things turning sour can be dramatically reduced.

Suppliers: Yes, this is philanthropic, yes this is an opportunity to roll out some interesting ideas, and yes it’s a chance for you to make inroads into a new sector. However, this isn’t a magic sandbox where the usual client and project rules can be disregarded, and these aren’t projects to be taken on lightly or without considering all the outcomes — for good or ill.

Organisations: Transparency is key. A supplier won’t be able to help you effectively if you can’t give them the whole picture, and the cornerstone to any strong relationship is being open and honest. If you have absolutely no experience of the internet beyond shopping on Amazon and posting updates to your FaceBook wall, that’s fine. The very worst thing you can do is pretend you know more than you do. There’s no shame in learning new stuff, in fact technology and best practise is always evolving, this is a great opportunity to hear what’s what from the people who are engaged in shaping its future.


Let’s wrap this up

It’s no secret that the beyond profit sector is in trouble. Budget cuts and ongoing challenges around fundraising are squeezing organisations in all the wrong ways.

Over 600 charities in the UK have an annual income of over £10m, a figure offset by the 80,000 charities with income under £10,000. That’s some severe diversity, and there are plenty of grass roots organisations out there that actually need help, and probably can’t afford it. Real cases for pro bono.

For many ‘sorting out the website’ or ‘dealing with the brand’ is bottom of the list of stuff to get done. When it inevitably becomes a priority many organisations are ill prepared for the reality of a design and build process, financially and structurally.

So, if you’re a supplier and fancy stepping up to the plate, or an organisation reaching out for help, take a moment to think about what you expect from the experience and how this relationship will evolve down the line.

As you’ve probably noticed, 4000-odd words later, I feel that (currently) supporting organisations with digital pro bono is (on the whole) misguided. I’m not convinced that in its existing format it’s a sensible, sustainable or terribly responsible model to continue using. We’re at a point in time where if organisations don’t have a budget allocated for digital development and ongoing support, or at least a pencilled cost that indicates the amount they’ll need if they end up having to pay for its provision, then as folk who ‘do digital’ we are failing them massively.

There needs to be a broader understanding of digital — both benefits and pitfalls — within the beyond profit sector, and we need to be doing more work to educate and inform, and keep them abreast of industry advances and best practice.

Those $10m+ organisations are usually mature and experienced enough to stand on their own two feet. In some cases they’re doing more innovative and exciting stuff with digital than large for-profits. Those smaller organisations though, we still need to be there to help out in whatever way we can.

Pro bono isn’t going to go away, and I’m okay with that so long as we can change up the damaging and dysfunctional model. Core to pro bono becoming a truly valuable offering is to ensure we’re always delivering something meaningful — to the business and its users — within a reasonable timeframe, and with skilled professionals who’re able to take organisations on a positive and educational journey.

Delivering work for the public good doesn’t need to be half-arsed, we just need to go beyond getting the nice biscuits out.

Digital Beyond Profit

A collection of the best articles we’ve found focussing on charity, social enterprise, tech for good and social impact.

Jonty Sharples

Written by

Co-founder of @Hactaris, a digital studio for social good.

Digital Beyond Profit

A collection of the best articles we’ve found focussing on charity, social enterprise, tech for good and social impact.