Salvaging Thankless Pro Bono Work

I’ve been screwed by paying clients before, but never by a pro bono one, until today. I’d like your advice and comments. Here’s the situation…

I was approached by someone starting a home organization business (a service that comes to your house, helps you de-clutter and clean, and teaches you how to organize things). She didn’t really have money to pay me to design / build a web site, but she was a friend-of-a-friend, and in desperate need of a good site. Her web site needs were fairly simple, and she gave me a lot of creative control, so I decided to take on the project.

I spent some time (enough to wish I was being paid!) designing and building out the site. I was about 90% complete and pretty happy with the design and functionality. I was looking forward to including the site in my portfolio. But after several attempts to get that last 10% of content I needed, I finally heard back from the client.

She has several legitimate issues (legal, business, and personal health) that she claims are preventing her from finishing and launching the site for at least 3-6 months. So now I feel kinda screwed, because the only benefit I was getting from this project was having a good site to add to my portfolio.

I have two ideas, and I’d love to hear what everyone thinks about them…

Idea #1:

Buy a generic domain name related to the organizing business. “De-brand” the site, swapping in a generic logo, removing all references to the client’s name and company name, and removing any other “specific” info. Publish the site so I can add it to my portfolio and have prospects see it in the wild. If and when the client wants to launch her real site, I would just take down the generic version.

Idea #2:

Approach other people in the same line of work. Explain that I have a site, tailored to their business, almost ready to go. Offer a significant discount on my normal fee, have them send me their specific content, put the site behind their domain name, and publish. If and when my pro bono client wants to launch her real site, she would either have to accept that it would now look like another live site /or/ pay me to do a redesign.

Thoughts? Comments? Other ideas?

I’m not trying to hurt the pro bono client, just derive some value from the hard work I did.


So put it onto your portfolio - what harm is there? Granted, there’s no link to go to a “live” site, but the work can still be shown, and since it’s pro bono work, I doubt you have any sort of contract in place to prevent you from doing it…

The only harm I can see is if, for some off reason, putting the work online would cause hardships to the client (i.e. them getting fired from their existing place of employment).

I don’t really see the problem with putting it on your portfolio AND offering it to other similar clients. Unless, of course, you are confident that this original client will come back and want to continue eventually.

Pro bono work has a tendency to go off the rails much more than paying work. When people aren’t paying (in cash) they are more likely to be distracted or otherwise disengaged. So, chalk it up to experience and keep it on your portfolio.

The problem with making the pro bono client’s site live is a legal one - she’s trying to start a business, but that disqualifies her for unemployment insurance. Having a live site would be indisputable proof of “business intention”.

I prefer my portfolio pieces to have links to live sites, rather than just screenshots. Design is one thing, but if I was selecting a web designer, I would want to see the HTML/CSS code, which you can’t get from a screenshot.

Why not set up a sub-domain on your portfolio site and load the “live” pages there.