By Andrew Neitlich

If you must volunteer to show a client what you can do….

By Andrew Neitlich

I’m not a big fan of offering free work to clients, but I know that sometimes some of you do that with good reason.

But if you must volunteer, please treat your assignment as if it were paid work.

A media professional volunteered recently to do an online project for me.

While I appreciate his help, he has treated the project as a “side” project. He has been consistently late, very late, with deliverables, explaining that he was too busy. And he just cut the scope of the project back considerably, leaving me hanging a bit.

Fortunately, I know how these volunteer projects often go, and had some back up ready to move immediately. As they were paid, they got the job done in 3 days vs. 5 weeks with the volunteer.

So what do you think my inclination to work with this guy is going forward?

If you must volunteer your services to show what you can do, please don’t think that you are doing a favor for the client. Treat the job as you would any other.

Or you will waste time and money, and actually hurt your reputation – even if you are doing a nice thing.

  • brudy

    Well said. We have run into issues just like this, but we happen to be on the volunteer side.

    I am concerned our reputation could easily slip in their eyes, but with the workload it makes it tough to get volunteer work done.

    The paying customers will always have preference and volunteer work will always be treated as almost like “overtime /on the side / when you can get to it” kind of work.

    We dont just flow with any volunteer work, but rather, we do map out and treat it as a normal project with normal processes. We even schedule it in our regular work day sometimes.

    I agree with everything you stated and would like to add that, if you do request some help, and someone does offer “free-of-charge” assistance, be prepared. Chances are likely that you will not have the leverage to push for better/faster work. Like most things in this world, it is a two-way street.

  • @brudy

    While I see what you are saying and completely understand. I have to disagree.

    If you treat the volunteer project as if it were a paying project then you will schedule it properly. Providing your service free of charge doesn’t mean “free when I can get to it”, it means you are treated no less than a paying client. I have to agree with Andrew, it could hurt your company and reputation by simply treating it like a ‘freebie’ gig. Personally, like Andrew I am not a fan of free projects, and tend not to offer them if I can not deliver due to workload. I feel it is the fairest thing to do for a prospect or client to be completely honest from the get go. If I do offer any free service I schedule it as if they paid me and deliver the same quality project as I would any other job.

    Great article Andrew. Never hurts for the reminder.

  • brudy

    Yes, ‘freebie’ gigs are slippery slopes.

    Planning it in as a regular paying project and delivering as such is the only way to go, if you want relations to stay intact at the end of it all.

    Nice article Andrew.

  • timjpriebe

    I go so far as to even have a contract when doing pro-bono work. The only difference is I have zeros for the dollar amounts.

  • I agree with treating pro-bono work the same as any paid project. The problem that I have with pro-bono work is the client respecting and valueing our time. Currently we are working on a very simple 9-10 page site. Honestly, we have changed this one sentence 5 times – trying to get the wording right. They have changed the color scheme 3 times. The menu has changed twice, now they want to add another page – which will change it again.

    How to make them understand the value of our time is the difficult part for me. If you say to a client, “ok, I’ll meet with you, but its $xx.xx per hour” Then they have everything ready for you when you show up. If its pro-bono, my experience is they drag out the meeting. Even if I mention to them to have this, this and this ready, its not ready when I get there and they are searching the office for it.

    I have a competitor in the area here and every website they have donated looks like it was donated. They all look like my 12 year old daughter designed them in (dare I say) FrontPage.

    We treat our pro-bono projects the same as any paid project, I just wish I knew how to get the pro-bono clients to treat us like we were paid developers.

  • Free or discounted work can be a dangerous area. Personally, all projects need to be treated with the respect they deserve and the attention they require… what monetation is attached to them is beside the point… at least assuming your approach to business is one focused on developing long-term relationships and building rapport.

    Doing this kind of work to “help a cause” is really a separate area. Doing it with the hope of winning future business from a client is probably never going to work out like you imagine… even if you do a stellar job.

    Even when a client looks at what it would have cost them and then sees the incredible deal you have given them, and even when they tell you that they have to make up the difference later on when they are able to, it doesn’t work. And I don’t think it is so much getting taken advantage of, but more the fact that everyone is busy and there are a million things screaming for attention, so over time, they simply forget what a great deal they got and that maybe they should try to give a little extra back, or perhaps they do remember, but perhaps it is human nature, but they’ll always equate what they got with what they paid, not what it would have cost them, and it is awfully hard to suddenly be paying 6-10 times more.

    In the end, no one really wins that deal.

  • shadowbox

    Word of warning, If you are doing freebies for a charity in the hope of getting some good publicity out of it, be aware that milking this kind of thing is a very tricky job that requires a high level of marketing expertise. We tried this and failed miserably. We also found that even though we had a signed contract ‘guaranteeing’ us certain promotionals, referrals, references, press releases, etc, the reality of enforcing these promises is a whole different ball game because your leverage is almost non-existant. In our case, the charity did their absolute minimum to live up to their end of the bargain and whenever we tried to push for what we deemed to be a fair ‘return of favour’ (we’d donated £3500 of our time), we were ignored, forgotten about or just swept aside with empty promises.

  • @shadowbox – Isn’t that the truth!!

    I worked for a nonprofit a few years ago and decided then and there if I ever do work again for free it will be because I want to make a donation. Because that’s all it will ever be! You can’t expect someone, through contractual obligations, to refer you business or speak highly of you. That’s like expecting your spouse to love you because of the contractual obligation of marriage. In an ideal world, maybe. But not in the real world.

    I don’t do freebie work much, but I recently took a job for a friend of mine. We both had the understanding that my current projects had priority, but I would try to fit his project in wherever possible. We got it finished in a couple of months (usually would’ve been about a month) and he is very happy with the results. He got a discount, and I told him he could pay me as he made sales and brought in money.

    I might not ever receive a dime, and that’s okay. I am very confident he will pay me (it might take a few years) but I knew the situation going into it, and agreed to do it.

    If you decide to do something probono, for free, as a donation, or for a discount, just understand what you’re getting yourself into. If it means your service will be different, make sure the client understands that and agrees to it as well… even if it’s free.

    As long as both parties agree to the terms, whatever they are, you’re okay.

  • doug

    Dare I say…. You get what you pay for.

  • Yes, absolutely. Charity work is just that and should be done because you want to do it, believe in the cause, etc. If you are lucky, you may get the benefit of extra exposure, but counting on that or hoping that that extra exposure will lead to extra business is a road to disappointment.

  • I would suggest that if you’re going to offer any free work whatsoever, put strict limits on it. Define the project thoroughly, as you would with a paid gig, have a contract drawn up and then put limits on the project. If they want to go above and beyond those limits, then make provisions for charging a fee for going the extra miles. So, if they say they want a 10 page website and you agree to a 10 page website with up to 3 major revisions (i.e. color scheme, menu changes) and 5 minor revisions (i.e. small sentence changes) then in your contract, you should absolutely state that going above and beyond these specific requirements will require either a fixed fee or an hourly fee. I would also build in a set amount of consulting time, maybe 3-5 hours or so. Anything above that will incur charges.

    What this does is that it allows you to do the volunteer work that they need while insuring that you’re not taken advantage of. If they stick to their plan, they will get to see the kind of work you do and how you are to work with without having to shell out cash up front. If they deviate from the plan, then you are compensated for your time. It also motivates you to treat this as a paid project, since it could very well become a paid project. If they agree to these terms, then the chances may be better that they will use you for paid work in the future if you do a good job.

  • mattymcg

    This overlaps with doing work for friends or family. Now that can get ugly.

  • Kenzsa

    If you are “forced” to do free work in order to gain employment/Contracts then you should be writing the hours off against something on your books.

    Even the ATO allow for some degree of tax write off in order to attain work. Your marketing budget it another option, hey even operational budgets should consider an amount for this type of thing.

    If you do the work, I also agree with Andrew. Whats the point of doing the work in the first place if you arent going to give it your best? You have only wasted your time and the clients, because they aren’t going to hire you. Your reputation would be less tarnished simply saying sorry in the first place.

    As a rule of thumb, you need to allocate money (yes and time) toward building your business. This is one of those “building your business methods” that can be employed from time to time. Its not a waste of effort or time, if it means promoting your business or bringing in more income later.

  • Anonymously

    @ Kenzsa

    Whats the point of doing the work in the first place if you arent going to give it your best? You have only wasted your time and the clients, because they aren’t going to hire you. Your reputation would be less tarnished simply saying sorry in the first place.

    The interesting thing is that Andrew would would not have offered the volunteer money, but did to someone else… Why?

    Because he did not manage expectation, not that he did not “give” a hundred percent real-time until Andrew no longer needed the services.

    The real issue is how and when to manage expectation.

    Personally, I don’t think I would want to work for Andrew, since he is ALWAYS shopping for a better deal…

    PS- Never do work for free… (As for volunteering, Andrew is not a Non-Profit)

  • aneitlich


    Here is an interesting fact for you: I did offer the volunteer money in order for him to make the project a priority and he did not accept my offer. I don’t know why for sure, but he indicated that money wasn’t the issue for him on this project.

    I promise you my expectations could not have been more clear about scope.

  • @Anonymously

    The real world can be a scary thing when you have clients that expect you to finish what you start and complete what the contract states in the time frame you agree on.

    Welcome to business.

  • Anonymously

    @ Andrew Neitlich

    Guess he made the first mistake in manage expectations – not knowing his own…

    Guess you should not to allow people to work for free. Either have them pay you for the honor or pay rock-bottom prices, in either case have a contract.

    Love your blog Andrew – and thanks for the reply!

  • Anonymously

    @ Gamermk

    I don’t think Andrew had a contract.

    Second, I don’t sign contracts – unless I’m the one giving them.

  • My company just completed a free site for non-for-profit. This was a very rewarding project and did not cost me much to produce. I did the artwork on my ‘spare’ time. I did pay $200 for my lead programmer to do the mark-up. Then I had an intern piece the site together. So all-in-all it cost me $200. We were able to get the site done in quick fashion. Click here to check out the site. I think it’s a quality site for being free.

    In turn, they are going to promote my company in their quarterly e-newsletter. It goes out to 800-900 volunteers, marketing experts and designers. I am hoping to get people visiting my site. I have a newsletter sign-up form on every page. I then have a true opt-in I can promote my own company. So, I would say that paying $200 and some of my spare time is worth getting in front of a potential 800+ people. The key is to listen to i-devs above along with working with the charity before you start the work to establish a trade that has the potential to establish qualified leads.

  • Never give your work away to get a contract. Any company that demands work to get a contract is sleazy and you don’t want to work for them anyway.

  • kenzsa

    Never give your work away to get a contract. Any company that demands work to get a contract is sleazy and you don’t want to work for them anyway.

    I’m not sure that I agree with this, but I do understand the principle. It all depends on what precisely it is they are asking you to do.

    For example, how many hours do people work on tenders with the possibility of not being paid for the work. Or how many times has a graphic designer been asked to provide a “concept” for a job that if the concept is successful could net them many thousands. Same with Architects vying for large jobs.

    Has anyone asked a tax agent if performing work for a Charity is tax deductable? I bet it is…. If its not, as someone said earlier there are often advantages for the business to do the work that they just aren’t thinking of right now (when the $$ are foremost in the mind). I almost hate myself saying that because charity work should (in the perfect world) given from the bottom of the heart or because you truely believe in the charity and the work they are doing… but I am a realist – and this is business.

  • Anonymously

    Never give your work away to get a contract. Any company that demands work to get a contract is sleazy and you don’t want to work for them anyway.

    Marketing & Sales is work that you will never get a contract to do for yourself and pointless if it is not “FOR” the client – so does that mean you won’t do it. As kenzsa points out you need to see if it’s an OPP or NOT… It is pretty common for large ORGs to request bids with comps and you’ve got to play to win.

  • Abby

    I looked into the idea of whether or not charity work is tax-deductible. Believe it or not, you can only deduct your expenses related to the project. You can not deduct your time. Sucks, really.

  • I almost hate myself saying that because charity work should (in the perfect world) given from the bottom of the heart or because you truely believe in the charity and the work they are doing… but I am a realist—and this is business.

    Let’s all try to remember what charitable work is all about. Sure it has some marketing and business advantages, but in the end, it should be about providing something to improve the life of another.

  • but in the end, it should be about providing something to improve the life of another.

    Any new business that does charitable work is almost always doing it to promote their new business. (ie. To improve their own life) I’m not saying that is right, but that is reality.

  • Wolf_22

    Very true unfortunately…

  • wonderbot

    I just wonder why Andrew was quick to pay someone else for the work he is complaining about being done for free? Why did he not contract the work to begin with? Another post in here indicates his is not a non profit business or charity. So basically I get the impression that Andrew is the one who should worry about his business image.

    If you do take on charity work I agree with the many in here who indicate it ought to be treated as a normal project and scheduled accordingly.


  • oceanwind

    Non-profit work can be a very trick to pull off. I have started in web development a few years ago and one of the projects that I decided to do was a free web site for a community. Even though I have studied various aspects of web development I did not have the experience to back it up so I thought this project is going to be a great start. How wrong I was. Even though I treated the project with utmost professionalism I was never taken seriously. The bottleneck occured when I asked the owner of the business for the documents/content for the web site…

    Fast forward to today. More then a year has passed and I have completed web sites for other organizations some of them being paid projects. Yet this project is still left uncomlete. I’m kind of skeptical now – should I charge the client? Should I impose a fee on the client for overdue materials? I see all sorts of opportunities the community can gain from the web site but I don’t have anything I can work on.

    It’s quite ironic that you would expect me to blow off the project, but instead it’s the owner!

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