You’re a design student with a portfolio full of fictitious projects. You want to work with clients to build your experience, but you need to develop your portfolio to get those jobs. That’s when pro bono design can be a massive help.

Pro bono publico (usually shortened to pro bono) is a Latin phrase that means "for the public good." It’s generally used to describe professional work undertaken voluntarily and without payment as a public service. But unlike traditional volunteerism, pro bono uses the specific skills of professionals to provide services to those who are unable to afford them.

Small non-profits are the companies that are most in need. Larger non-profits are likely to have a percentage of their annual budget allocated to brand identity work, and will probably already have a working relationship with a design studio (although it can pay to ask if there’s a company you particularly want to collaborate with).

Search online, in a phone directory, or a local paper for a nearby organisation. There are a few advantages of staying local: You can meet your client face to face, helping to build confidence, and making it easier to ensure you’re dealing with the decision-maker rather than passing design ideas through a middle-person. You get the opportunity to take your own photos of the finished design (on signage, stationery, etc.) — if done right, these contextual shots can turn an average case study into a great one. And you’re building your network of local business contacts. The stronger your network, the more help that's available down the line.

Approaching a non-profit about pro bono work

Talk to the person responsible for the branding. In a small-sized company 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, and that your client's mission is one you have a great deal of respect for (this should, obviously, be true). Detail the savings you are offering your client (your standard rate for an identity project, discounted by 100%). This’ll make sure the value of the outcome isn't underestimated, and helps keep your client motivated.

Ask for a 30-minute meeting, where you'll talk about design needs and set a course of action. That’s where you’ll arrive with your standard questions to help set the design brief.

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 build the organisation's reputation. So the more in-depth your initial discussions, the more at ease your client will be.

Time the meeting, and if you haven't finished within half an hour say you’ve reached the end of the allocated time, and that you can call or email at a later date for any other information — your client will appreciate that.

I’ve outlined a number of questions to ask in the Logo Design Love book.

A few related reads:
Paula Scher on pro bono.
When pro bono design pays off.
10 tips for designers working pro bono, on Co.Design.