Guide To Boosting Your Freelance Career With Pro Bono Work

People who are new to web design and development, writing or any other sort of creative work have little to show in their portfolio. And that’s a potentially major problem as thousands of experts with strings of portfolios are already out in a saturated market. What advantage could a newcomer have over someone who’s had years of experience and a reputation to boot?

Well, you can always go pro bono to build up your professional portfolio first. Want to know how? I’ve put together a quick guide on how to leverage pro bono work to gain more work.

What Is Pro Bono?

Pro bono is basically work done by a professional for free for the public. But in the freelance scene’s context, it’s for a freelancer’s image. Pro bono work is tricky. I say tricky because there are two different opinions on this. There’s the professionals who hate pro bono work and the ones who are for it.

The group against pro bono work feel that artists are getting ripped and selling themselves short of what they are worth. Alongside that you have many clients that prey on beginners to get free or extremely cheap labor.

The professionals are right; you should never ever sell yourself short. Hate on these predators (for lack of a better term) however you want, but why not you use them to your advantage instead?

The Sad Truth About Starting Freelancing

Only the experienced ones are given the high-paying projects. It doesn’t really matter if you are an experienced developer, designer or writer, if your online profile is basically zero, you’re out of luck.

You need to have an online presence.

When I started writing as a freelancer, 5 months after finishing university, no one wanted to work with me because I didn’t have any published articles online. I only started getting work because I did one free work. After which, I was recommended to and by people.

If you are new to the scene, I highly recommend selling yourself short (that’s a sentence I never thought I’d ever write). Suppose a project’s budget is around $2000. If you think you can offer a 25-50% price slash, do it. If it’s a project that can be accomplished in just one day, you could even offer your services for free.

There is a catch though. Being the lowest bidder might give the impression that you are a low-quality worker. To turn this to your advantage, explain your situation: you are offering to work for less because you are new to the scene, but your client should expect no less than exceptional work.

Projects Worth Pursuing

Of course you shouldn’t just accept any project you see. You need to be meticulous and make sure that the project will potentially lead to other projects.

If you are looking for work on job boards like Elance, Freelancer, and the like, be sure to only talk to project owners with a robust history of projects. That way, you can ask them to contact you for future projects if they like your work.

Another thing you can do is to contact businesses or organizations in your area and offer your service. Try contacting the following in your locality; usually they have very little requirements and you’ll not get too much feedback (or additional input) and will be left on your own to do your magic. Plus, if you do it for free, you can always ask them to provide a good testimonial for you or to recommend you to others.

  • Schools
  • Churches
  • Orphanages
  • Interest groups
  • Your favourite local band
  • Your favourite restaurant
  • Politicians (if you are feeling adventurous)

When selecting your organization of choice, there are 3 important things to consider:

Is the organization connected with other organizations?

Organizations like to keep in contact with other similar organizations e.g. musician bands and indie groups know of other similar groups and if you were to make one website for one group, word may spread quickly of your services within the community.

Does it have a good image?

Where possible, you should steer clear from organizations with a bad image. Doing pro bono work should steer towards developing a positive image for yourself, not ruin it before it launches.

Is there potential for growth?

If the atmosphere suggests that the organization you’d want to work with has a great potential for growth, hop in without a second thought. You’ll be riding to the top with them as they popular and bigger.

Note that these are mere guidelines, not rules. You may prefer to work with individuals first instead of organizations. That’s fine too as it helps add to your ever-growing portfolio, giving you the boost you need in a different way.

How To Know What Works

A lot of companies and experienced freelancers do pro bono work on a regular basis. For example, web hosting companies do a lot of giveaways, offering a year’s worth of web hosting and domains for free. While they are not getting paid for their services, they are getting back free publicity. The same can be seen in graphic artists who release business card designs, logos, icons, fonts, artwork and the like on design blogs and creative outlets like Behance, Dafont, DeviantArt, and Dribbble.

Why does this work? People love free stuff. They will flock to you. And that’s the kind of publicity you want, a positive one. For web designers and developers, one effective method of driving people to your site is by giving away free website templates which, mind you, you can also include in your portfolio.

Do you see the trend here now? The gateway to success is basically to give your stuff for free at first, because if people loved your product or work, you will eventually be led to people who are willing to pay for more of your work.

Say No To spec Work

Urgh, spec work. Do not mistake pro bono work with… spec work. Unlike pro bono work which will probably get you leads to better-paying work in the future, spec work is just downright evil. It operates like this: the client behind a project will ask many individuals (mostly freelancers) to produce a work based on a specific list of requirements.

The bad news is, they pick, and pay, only the one result they want. After investing all that time and effort into producing spec work, you might leave empty handed, with no testimonial, publicity or leads to future project. Never engage in spec work — you’ll just encourage them to prey on other newcomers if you do.

Pro bono doesn’t only work for people who are just starting freelance work online. This also applies to seasoned freelancers who are experiencing "rainy days”, days when projects seem hard to come by. Start building your portfolio now. Remember, always move forward, even if it’s just one small step.