Volunteering design skills for non-profit causes

The Indie Rock Coloring Book

Does providing design free to non-profits devalue design services, or add to the value of the cause that you are supporting?

The project that got Laura and I first in contact with DesignGel was an enterprise that we put together in the final year of our degree at Massey University. We investigated how we could get designers to work with not-for-profit organisations in Wellington for the mutual benefit of experience and social good.

We soon realised that donating time doing design or otherwise doesn’t work so well as a sustainable business model. We spent a lot of time working out what we thought was reasonable to ask of designers collaborating with not-for-profit organisations.

We got in contact with American designer and illustrator, Andy J. Miller, who gave us this invaluable advice when we asked him about working for not-for-profits on a pro-bono basis:

I have two books published by a major publisher, Chronicle Books, which I created pro-bono for charity, The Indie Rock Coloring Book and The Indie Rock Poster Book. In fact, for The Indie Rock Poster Book I had to recruit 30 artists to contribute free work for charity, and although it was successful, I learned a lot.

1. Understand that creativity is often undervalued by the whole of society, and therefore asking a designer to work for free is a delicate subject. Perpetuating the idea that designers should work for free in any scenario is a little scandalous in the eyes of the greater design community. This isn't to scare you, it's just something I didn't initially understand when I started down this road. Just try to approach it with the understanding that it’s just like asking an accountant to work for free.

2. Make sure you understand what your offer is and be honest about it. If you are asking them to donate time and energy because it’s a worthy cause, with nothing real in return, then be honest. Even established designers will dedicate time for a worthy cause they are passionate about for no money. Don't say you’re giving them exposure if you aren't sure you are.

3. I'm proud of the free work I've done for charity for the pure reason of giving back but I also have gained a lot myself by doing these things. So I do think there are positive things to gain on both sides in these endeavours. In the right scenario it can be win win, but don't assume it always will. Do your homework, make it work for both sides.

So when is it reasonable to work on a pro-bono basis for a not-for-profit?

Donating my design skills is just one way that I can help out a not-for-profit cause. Design can give an important leg up in boosting the integrity and reputation of the not-for-profit brand, and in communicating the cause clearly. While I can’t afford to donate substantial amounts of money to the organisations I would like to support, there may be occasions where I can give a small amount of my time and make a difference in some way.

I, like most other designers spent a lot of time developing my skill in order to make a living from it, also with the hope that I will enjoy my work. I worried that designing on a pro-bono basis for a not-for-profit could mean that others also expected me to work for free or at a discounted rate. By offering my skills, was I taking paid work out of reach for other designers? In my case, no. If an organisation has paid staff members and is well-established, then they are likely paying for other professional services, and in this case, design services should be no different. However, the type of small organisations that I wanted to be involved in did not have a substantial budget, and would have gone without a graphic designer, had I not put my hand up.

Ideally, it would be great to see businesses sponsoring not-for-profit organisations to work with designers on projects. This could result in young social minded creatives affording to take on larger projects that could make a big difference to an organisation and community. Other professions have successful volunteer organisations, offering out their specific skills and services. Community Comms is a Wellington collective of communications professionals that offer advice to not-for-profit organisations and start ups.

In my opinion, deciding to donate your skills to a worthy cause does not devalue your design. However, how you choose to put your time and skill to use is your decision. Pro-bono work should always be done on your own terms, and there is nothing wrong with deciding not to support a cause in this way.

If you are in need of professional design experience and are willing to take on a pro-bono design project, a local not-for-profit organisation is a great way to develop your own skills and at the same time give back to your community.