How to improve your portfolio with pro bono design

You’re a graphic design student with a portfolio full of fictitious projects. You want to work with clients to build your experience, but you need a more developed portfolio to attract the clients. A classic catch-22.

That’s when pro bono design proves extremely useful.

Leather portfolio detail

What is pro bono?

Pro bono publico (usually shortened to pro bono) is a Latin phrase that means “for the public good.” The term is generally used to describe professional work undertaken voluntarily and without payment as a public service.

Unlike traditional volunteerism, pro bono uses the specific skills of professionals to provide services to those who are unable to afford them.

What business to approach

Small- to medium-sized non-profits are most in need. Larger organisations are more likely to have a substantial budget allocated to their brand identity, and likely have a working relationship with a studio or agency.

Search online or in your telephone directory for a local organisation. The benefit of staying local is you can meet your client face-to-face. Not only will that help to build confidence, it also makes it easier to ensure you’re dealing with the decision-maker rather than passing design ideas through a middle-person.

Another benefit of working locally is the opportunity to take photos of the finished design in situ (e.g., on signage and stationery). It’s these contextual shots that can turn an average portfolio into an excellent one.

Additionally, you’re building your network of local business contacts, and the stronger your network, the more help that’s available throughout your design career.

Making the approach

It’s important to talk to the person directly responsible for the branding. In a small-sized non-profit this is likely to be the managing director or chief executive.

Pitch yourself as a talented designer with policy of devoting a small percentage of time toward pro bono work (for the public good), and that your client’s non-profit mission is one you have a great deal of respect for (this should be true, of course).

Detail the savings you are offering your client (your standard rate for an identity project, discounted by 100%). Doing so will ensure the value of the outcome isn’t underestimated, and helps keep your client motivated.

Arrange a 30-minute meeting, where you’ll talk about design needs and set a course of action.

In the meeting

Arrive with your questions, notepad, business card.

Your client might be wary about having his or her brand identity created or redesigned. It might be seen as a risk rather than a way to help secure the organisation’s future. So the more indepth your initial discussions, the more at ease your client will be.

Time the meeting, and if you haven’t finished within 30 minutes, say you have reached the end of the allocated time, and that you can call or email your client at a later date for any other information — your client will be busy, and will appreciate you sticking to your limit.

Questions to ask

I’ve outlined a number of important questions in chapter four of my first book.

How did you attract your first client in self-employment?

My first client was my former employer — a cancer organisation in Edinburgh. I was responsible for the company’s print and web management, and when I resigned to spend some months travelling, I returned to find that a suitable replacement hadn’t been found.

I asked the chief exec to hire me for three days per week as a design contractor. He agreed, allowing me to spend the remainder of the week building my online presence and sourcing additional clients. Here’s a little more about how I became self-employed.

What about you? How did your first client come about?

Elsewhere:
10 tips for designers working pro bono, on Co.Design

Top photo by Nicholas Hollows

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59 Comments

  1. This is extremely important, especially for graduating students. I wish they taught us these things back in university so that we had the time to prepare ourselves.

  2. Helping out small local non-profits is a great way to build a portfolio and is great for your community and will be highly appreciated, so it’s a win-win for everyone involved.

  3. Agreeing with Chris i do believe that building your portfolio can be easily accomplished through non-profit-organizations. You benefit through this 4 different ways:

    1. You also give your share to that particular organization

    2. It looks good on you to design for a non-profit-organization

    3. Its much easier for you to find work through these organizations, so you can build up your portfolio much quicker

    4. Those designs can travel and you can get mentioned for more commissioned work

  4. Thank you so much for sharing this, David!

    I’m working with two non-profit organizations pro-bono right now. My school requires students to pass two ‘Senior Project’ classes that reaches out to local non-profits, and has groups of students create websites for them.

    I feel so lucky to be working with the ones I was given.

    One is a ballet company that reaches out to all the young women who love ballet, but were told that they didn’t have the ‘right body type.’

    The other is ‘The Chuck Jones Center for Creativity’ (Yes, THAT Chuck Jones!) His daughter and grandson run the organization to promote the arts. I have full access to literally thousands of pieces of art by Chuck Jones.

    Both of the websites are going to be absolutely beautiful for my portfolio.

    I also hope that, even after I graduate, I’m successful enough that I can do two pro-bono projects per year for small, locally-owned businesses that are involved in ‘The 3/50″ project.

  5. Me too, Omar. I would’ve gained a head-start had I known of this after my graduation.

    Anna, good for you. I’m glad to know your school is bringing non-profit work on to the syllabus, and that even after you finish studying, you intend to keep it up.

    I hope your two projects turn out great.

  6. When I was still doing my degree, the lecturers would have had us quit our part-time jobs, and stay in 24/7 working on their assignments if they had their way. So them making suggestions on how we could take on any extra work would have been completely out of the question.

    The issue with University of Ulster in particular is the class sizes. The class sizes are huge, and each student gets very little individual time with the lecturers.

    I was in my final year before I actually got some proper 1 to 1 time with the Senior Design Lecturer. A lot of students revel in the fact that they get easy timetables with little class hours… but the reality is that when that is the case students are getting screwed for what they are paying in fees!

    But anyway, enough post-apocalyptic ranting on this fine Monday morning. ;-) In a nutshell… I concur, good sir.

  7. Hi David,

    Long time follower, first time thought giver!! I have been running my own graphic design business in Brisbane, Australia for approx 2years after working as a graphic designer for a printing company.

    I agree with the previous comments that nothing is taught on how to get clients or promote yourself while studying. Its all well and good to have the technical knowledge, but you need to have the business knowledge too.

    My best tip for anyone starting or studying, is to find some work experience. While I did my studies, I did work experience. Not only did this give me some on the job training, but it helped me land my first job!!

    Love reading your posts, and admire your work.

    PS: Updated my Twitter account with your message!!

    Take care
    Scott

  8. Seems like a real shame, Mark (the crowded classes). I didn’t attend there, but here’s hoping things have improved at the University of Ulster.

    Scott, I completely agree about the work experience part. I was lucky enough to spend a summer interning in the United States — an experience I’ll never forget. Thanks for the tweet, and for your first-time comment.

  9. It certainly was, David, and it is an issue with the course I did.

    All students should definitely do some form of work placement.

    I done a placement year for my 3rd year and I worked for Intel in Dublin. It was a bit of a bizarre experience working for a corporation trying to do marketing materials for them because you had such strict guidelines to comply with. But the experience I had there was an eye opener to the other side of industry, that being the large monolithic corporate world, which hopefully I won’t have to endure again.

    When I was actually back in my final year I wanted to learn a bit more about the print process so I managed to talk my way into getting a job in a local printers. I was in there a day or two a week helping out, and was getting paid, with some really good perks for coursework printing too, as you can imagine. Even If I wasn’t getting paid though, I reckon I would have at least put in some time there to learn the stuff you don’t get taught in class.

    Most students aren’t aware of opportunities that are out there for them, but if you look hard enough there are always some options to better yourself – you just need to have that spark and itch to want to work.

  10. Jon Liebold

    Definitely with you on the pro bono thing. I am working an internship pro bono right now with a neighborhood association and it has given me a lot of stuff to do that I normally would not have been able to. For example I have had two ads published in a local paper (One was a rush job so I crammed new content into a pre-existing template, the other I did from scratch) and I have a third one to be done on Friday. I have also done a few other projects like a membership card and some feature boxes for the website.

  11. Out of curiousity, what do you mean by “self-designed logos”? Ain’t all logos are self designed by the designers? Or I’m just missing some peculiarities of English…

  12. When I was starting out, Mark, I signed up with a design-based recruitment agency. I was placed in the design department of Scottish Widows for a few days, and it didn’t take long to tire of the incredibly specific design guidelines.

    Jon, our internships are similar in a way — I didn’t get paid either. Mine was full-time, and because of which, I needed a second ‘job’, working whatever hours I could get. Tough going at times, but hugely beneficial.

    I’m glad you’re getting your work out there. Definitely a plus with pro bono.

    Luke, if I asked everyone to upload one of their favourite logos, chances are I’d see numerous submissions for FedEx, Apple, Shell, etc. Hence the inclusion of “self-designed” logos.

  13. I totally agree, this is very important because you improve your portfolio and also you can help an organisation that is in need of a design makeover.

    My twitter account is updated!

  14. Hi David, I think pro bono is a terrific idea for beginning designers. It is hard to get paying clients when you have little to show and works from class is not enough.

    The first works I did that was beyond the classroom was actually for my Fraternity. This was a great opportunity for me, because I got to design materials that were printed, and distributed throughout campus and online. Soon I was designing for other Fraternities/Sororities, and cultural student organizations.

    Many of the events I designed (and participated in) for involved partnered non-profit organizations and I think having those recognizable names (Red Cross, Salvation Army, etc) looks good when presenting your portfolio.

    Eventually I landed a job for the campus TV station and campus Newspaper. Then I was able to get a paid summer internship at a real estate agency and then finally, a full service advertising agency in Boston.

    All those things built upon one another, and though I think doing pro bono work for non-profits is a great idea, David, I also think doing work for student organizations and being involved on campus is also a good way to add pieces to your portfolio.

  15. Hmm… Taking into account what has been already said, what should a beginner persue – a pro bono work for a non profit, etc or a low to no payment work which also genenerates him/her a portfolio? what’s your mind on that?

  16. Catherine

    David, I have a question for you. It may sound like a silly question, but I’m just curious. I’ve been a graphic designer for almost 5 years now. I always wanted to do pro-bono work, but based on the article, is this only something beginner designers/design students do? I only ask because I’ve been looking for other ways to expand my portfolio. Should I look into freelance work instead?

    I also wish they mentioned this in design school. I think my portfolio out of school would have been stronger.

  17. Nice addition, Andy (about getting involved on campus).

    Luke, I advise against devaluing yourself with spec work or design contest websites.

    Catherine, not a silly question at all. Pro bono work is something all designers can do, regardless of experience levels. Think of it as giving to charity, only you get a little something back, too.

  18. I totally enjoy pro bono work it lets me put into practice what I’ve gained.
    Although, I was under the impression most people did pro bono work.
    By reading the comments then realized perhaps not, thanks for the sharing
    the informative article David.

  19. Nice article David, always good reading your blog.

    The only thing I would add is that pro bono doesn’t have to be 100% free. “For the public good” doesn’t mean you have to work for weeks or months without any compensation.

    I would urge students/recent grads that if you feel your work is really good and that you can bring real value to the organization, try offering your services at a reduced rate and/or alternate terms (no deposit, etc.).

    Of course if you don’t feel confident yet in your skills, offering your services completely free can be a good choice. Low/no risk for the organization, and an opportunity for you to get some good experience under your belt.

  20. Jon Liebold

    LukeSF:

    As an employer, what would you want to see? A portfolio full of pro-bono work, or a portfolio full of contest losses? Sure you might have the occasional wins, but sheer probability will be mostly losses?

    David:

    Can it be one for a made-up company?

  21. @Jon IMHO most of those who look at the beginners folios don’t bother much where the designs come from.
    They cast a look and decide whether that person possesses certain skills, meets their own “vision” of who a designer for their project should be, and check whether there’s some feedback from real people.

  22. I think it’s awesome that Anna’s school requires students to get some real world project experience and benefit a non-profit at the same time. What a great idea! And how helpful for making the jump to the professional world less painful.

    Great article, David. I’ve always liked this idea of yours and I echo it whenever I get questions from students about how best to build their early portfolio while gaining valuable experience in the process (creating your own fake projects isn’t anywhere near the same!).

    Jason above makes a great point, too. Having the non-profit pay even a nominal fee for one’s work makes it have at least a small intrinsic value to them and hopefully brings the project higher up on the priority list. Having worked at a non-profit myself, I can attest to the truth that often times projects that make measurable money (like fundraisers, grant proposals, etc.) have priority over what they might view as “nice to have” projects.

    My first official client was my chiropractor. He had been talking to me about expanding his business and having a professionally designed brochure to hand out at health talks and fairs. He was impressed with my portfolio and asked me to work on it. It was a great project (not pro bono, though). Turned out very well!

  23. @LukeSF, I think you are partially right, but portfolio isn’t everything and having real world experience is also very important. You will hear it time and again, a designer can be brilliant, but if s/he doesn’t know how to work with people, s/he won’t make it very far. Just being a cool person to work with will seriously go a long way!

  24. @Lauren Absolutely agree. And in this case pro bono work gives way more positive effect on a designer.

  25. Artis Desels

    Hi David! Thanks for the great, just in time article.

    I was trying to think of how to approach the local non profit organization, which is providing support to families with children suffering from leukemia, to offer my services. And you just made it so much easier.

    @LukeSF regarding your question about low or no payment services. I agree to David about spec work.There are other ways for beginner to fill his/her portfolio with masterpieces.

    For example, as a beginner logo/web designer I could offer my knowledge and services for low or no cost in exchange for their knowledge or services to photographers, illustrators, copywriters, artists, [enter your option here] who have shabby or no website and/or logo. It’s a win-win situation. I think it was called “barter”. At least I suppose it is way better than spending time on spec lottery.

  26. Hi David, great post, I have been away for a while and was getting ready to catch up with all the the posts I missed, and I noticed the changed David Airey logo (I really loved the old one) is there a link to the post that explained the new logo? could I please get a link to it? thank you.

    cheers.

    PK

  27. Barter sounds good, but one should be careful too, cuz sometimes stuff like “do me a logo and I will mention you in blog, create press realease, etc, etc” sometimes can be far from being a fair trade..

  28. Great tip, Jason. Pro bono doesn’t necessarily involve a lack of financial compensation, and it all depends on the initial chat.

    Jon, you asked, “Can it be one for a made-up company?” but I’m not sure what you mean. If you’re referring to the Facebook group upload, then absolutely.

    Lauren, I’m sure I can’t take credit for the idea, but I’m glad it’s one you agree with. And yep, great to know about Anna’s design course.

    Your chiropractor, eh? Good on you for bringing your skills into the conversation!

    Artis, it’s a pleasure to be of some help.

    Welcome back, Patricia. There was quite a chat in the comments on the following post about my old/new logo and the chances made to the blog:

    Experimenting with a new portfolio design

    To sum it up, I felt I outgrew my previous design, and the legibility wasn’t great amongst those who didn’t know my name. It may well change once I finish helping a current client, but for now, I’m much happier with the simpler logotype.

  29. I think it’s great practice to have real clients, even if you’re not getting paid, experience is sometimes worth the lack of funds… Sometimes….

  30. Dominic Rödel

    I think this is WAY better training then doing made up “brandstack” work. there is nothing harder then doing client work. That is where the good designers seperate from the normal designers.

  31. Hi David, excellent article as usual. What do you do if your between a rock and hard place. Currently I am a freelance web designer and I have a few portfolio pieces but I am finding it difficult to get new work/clients. I also have a couple of websites on the go which are going through the stages and I am working with a web company doing development work too, neither can really help on the portfolio front right now. What can you suggest to somebody who isn’t a “fresh” graduate and somebody who is already a freelancer with a limited amount of portfolio work?
    Thanks
    Damian

  32. I have contributed to a couple non-profit organizations but your article has inspired me to contribute more. Thanks! Curt

  33. If you would please replace my twitter address in my previous thoughts.

  34. I think pro bono work is always a great idea when its for a good cause, and especially when one is just starting out. I strongly suggest it to any new designer, and recommend it often to my own readers. Despite my own thoughts, it’s still amazing how many people are against the idea of free work when just starting out (even for charities and etc!). I always get at least a bit of retaliation when I mention the idea in one of my posts. Glad there’s a detailed post here, and plenty of others agreeing with me.

  35. Good idea, David, and I also agree that there’s no need to stop doing pro bono once you’ve got a portfolio established. I still do pro bono work for good causes and have made it part of my business (only part, mind you, I still need to eat…). One thing I would add is to bear in mind that offering your services for free is a great idea, but don’t forget that you are getting something in return. I’ve heard of some people offering pro bono work with the attitude that they are very much doing the client a huge favour, which is not the best way to go about things.

    I don’t use Twitter, but I might upload a logo as I’d love to read your book. Alternatively I’ll just go the old-fashioned route and buy a copy.

  36. Catherine

    I have a question. Like I said in an earlier post, I’ve been a full-time graphic designer for a design agency for about 5 years. I am interested in pro-bono work. However, I’m curious how that will work with someone who has a full-time job. I mean I won’t be able to meet with them during the week, because I work full-time. Does anyone out there do pro-bono work and work full-time as well? How does that work? Do you think the client you are doing pro-bono work for will be flexible? What are your thoughts?

  37. Catherine, I have done pro bono work while working full time and found the client(s) to be more flexible as they appreciate what you are doing. Having said that, if you promise to complete work by a set date you should deliver – i.e. treat them the same as you would a paying client. I think it also depends on where you are and where your client is. In my case, we were both in Tokyo so it was easy to meet up after office hours and discuss the project. As David said in his original post, though, I think it’s important that you support what the charity or NPO stands for.

  38. Catherine

    Thanks, Richard! I appreciate your thoughts.

  39. Sibu Dandato

    I love this article because this is where it began for me. I have done numerous pro bono projects for small non-profits and individuals as a hobbie and this inspired me to go back to school and study graphic design. I am looking forward to expanding my repertoire and reach as a designer and I already have a small client base as well as the makings of a real portfolio after only one year of study.

  40. Thanks very much to everyone who entered the draw.

    The winners have each been notified, and are Alex Rogers, Alison Rowan, Wilson Almeida, Jack Franklin, and Naomi Oldfield!

  41. Hi Dave

    You have been an inspiration to me and it gives me great pleasure to comment on your blog after so many years of followership. I think it is a wonderful act to give, especially if one is a designer. It helps one to not only not showcase their design flair but also contribute to community. I know it is hard, but giving ones talent for free should not be a heartache, but an opportunity in getting recognition as an individual and a designer. So I would recommend designers having a sort of “pro bono” in them.

    Keep up the good work Dave.

  42. Great article and insightful inspiration. Thanks for this article. I just finished your book, yet I’ll still pick it up and read some chapters again.

  43. I have had this approach backfire on me. I suppose I should have gone to a larger business but I believe that because I was offering to do the work for free they didn’t take me seriously. I couldn’t get any content or approvals for my designs and in the end was a huge waste of my time because I got nothing for my portfolio.

    I do however agree that this is a good approach to help build a portfolio and when I am not so jaded will offer my services for those in need.

  44. Steve O

    Oops, missed this one. Gah.

    Pro bono can work even when you have a client base. I producing this logo http://bit.ly/beginspacelogo for a local organisation. They were delighted and it has led to more work and good connections. Win win!

    Congrats on the book btw David B)

  45. Hi David

    I have just finished my design degree and I graduate next month. I have been quite lucky while studying as I landed some great jobs in the creative field.

    Living in New Zealand the design community is very small and although I would like to work for a company as a designer for sometime the odds of that happening look quite slim. Instead I have been working on freelance projects here and there as well as offering free services too in an aim to add to my portfolio.

    Some of my friends arent very keen on doing freelance projects as I found out today. They are aiming to create a collective of designers and seem to think clients will just flock to you.

    I would like to Thank you very much for your post as it helped me decide what I really should be doing which is practicing! Everyones comments and opinons have been very helpful and Design schools really need to promote pro bono work.

  46. I am currently creating a website free of charge to a local charity. I had never done pro bono work before but as I was on the doorstep of going freelance full-time I thought that this particular charity would provide me with some good contacts and advertising.
    As they understand it’s for free, you can also specify that paid work will have to come first so you’re not under too much pressure, as you don’t want to end up resenting the work.

  47. Thanks very much, Anthony, Steve. And to you, too, Tin, for reading my book.

    Shame it didn’t work out for you, Ryan. Perhaps rather than saying “free” you can say “with a 100% discount on £_____.”

    Louisa, that’s a great addition — telling your pro-bono client that projects with paying clients take precedence. I’m sure it’d help reduce stress levels when deadlines are looming.

    Faaiza, I hope everything’s great with you in NZ. I’d love to visit one day. A close friend of mine here in Edinburgh lived there for a year. He had an amazing time.

  48. Hello David & All,

    You a true inspiration and so are all the other writers. As I have said before I am only a novice and receiving your news letter David, is a pleasure. I learn so much but confidence is not my strong point when I come to designing. The web sites I have done all look and function really well and the people I have designed them for are really pleased. However, I think all my sites are pro bono! I never know what to ask for and usually get a couple of bottles of wine! It is my fault though as when my friends say ‘so how much?’ I start to talk about soemthing else.

    One more question please, how do you present your portfolio? Is it always online, like yours David or do you have hard copies also? If you met say a client, do you take your laptop and stuff to show them?

    Thank you David & Friends.

    Best wishes
    Graeme

  49. Hello Graeme,

    I do have some tangible work around me, but it hasn’t been needed for client deals. My online portfolio does the job, and given that most of my clients are overseas, I don’t often carry my MacBook around for presentations.

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