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I realise that working for free would change the relationship between me and a client compared to paid work, but the end result (a quality design that helps the client make money and improve their visibility) would be the same while removing much of the time and financial pressures from both parties.

My motivation would be to gain some experience and to enjoy helping a charity (I've done volunteering before and found it fulfilling). Their motivation would be to get something for free. I'm full-time employed at the moment so I'd be doing this in my spare time of course.

One benefit I can see is being able to build a portfolio of legitimate design work that I can use demonstrate my abilities to future paying clients. I was thinking of doing voluntary work for a year or so, depending on how much interest I can drum-up. I'm looking at making company logos, business cards and other individual pieces, but not things like a website redesign.

Can this be a realistic, viable way to get a foot on the ladder in graphic design while minimising my risks and outlay in the short term?

  • What gives you doubts that this isn't a viable way to get a foot into graphic design? – Zach Saucier Feb 13 at 18:50
  • @ZachSaucier, mainly the numerous differences in the relationship between paid work versus unpaid. A paying customer (from what I can gather) will be more constrained by time and budget. I suspect (speculation) that a charity will be more relaxed about timescales and there is literally no budget at all. I'm eventually planning to go self-employed so I'm trying to work out the risks while I still have a paying job to fall back on. Job security ain't what it were though. :) – Wossname Feb 13 at 18:56
  • I guess another way to put it would be "do paying clients give a damn about portfolio work that was done on a pro-bono / voluntary basis?". Or might they assume that such work was trivial because it was done for free? – Wossname Feb 13 at 18:59
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do paying clients give a damn about portfolio work that was done on a pro-bono / voluntary basis?

Some do but most don't. Potential clients will all have their own opinions of your previous work. That's not the important part.

You don't need to (read shouldn't) advertise that any previous work experience you have is unpaid. In fact I'd argue that you should try to get paid for the work that you do, even for these non-profits.

Non-profits still have a budget. I think you should do your best to try and get paid at the same time. You should treat this the same way as a paying client in every respect (especially in terms of making a contract), at least initially.

Why? If an organization is getting free work, they can change the specs all they want, drag out the timeline, and ultimately be terrible clients. Making them pay something will force them to at least care a little bit and be wise with both their time and yours.

Plus charging people money for services that you offer is often one of the harder skills to learn. This way you get more real experience.

Now, does the rate that you give have to be high? No. And if they say they can't pay does that mean you shouldn't do it? No. But you should at least try to get paid.

I am not saying this out of greed - this is true even if you are a millionaire. Involving money helps people be more professional.

A great client wouldn't abuse your time or take advantage of your free work. But most clients are not great clients. Always protect yourself by treating people as not-great clients until they prove themselves to be great clients.

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  • A lot of great points in here. I appreciate the point about having at least some payment to encourage mutual professionalism, that does make a lot of sense. – Wossname Feb 13 at 19:31
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"You get what you pay for."

This can largely encompass the mindset of non-paying clientele. They may "settle" where they normally would not, because they aren't paying for the work. So, there's a consideration there when working for free.

As @ZachSaucier pointed out effectively.... there's also the lack of timelines, restraints, and traditional demands a paying client brings.

You can spend months, in some cases years, working on something for free because the client isn't concerned with anything other than getting what they want. Invoices prevent that. Invoices force the client to be aware of time and demands. And it's how effective a designer is under demand that is valuable to review. Even the most inept designer will eventually stumble upon something great.

I also agree with Zach in that "non-profit" does NOT ever mean "no money". Non-profit or not-for-profit CEOs make HEFTY salaries. These organizations DO have money. Their tax structure and budget is not your concern and never should be. I, personally, always look at non-profit as merely a tax structure. What importance is it to me, the designer, if the organization pays less taxes??? That's all "non-profit" really means.


That being posted you can invoice for time as opposed to dollars. When I've volunteered my services it has been under a time restraint and I've donated X hours of my skills. I then give the client time estimates rather than dollar estimates. The client can then choose to use my time in whatever manner they feel will benefit them most. And I invoice for "hours spent" after any project. This lets the non-paying client know.. they have X hours left.

This method has been effective for me in limiting the back and forth, constant revisions, and otherwise lack of consideration most non-paying clients inherently bring. One must be diligent is sticking to the hours donated though. It's all too easy to "throw in" a few more hours to complete a project. The designer should think of this in terms of money (i.e. billable hours).... you wouldn't return to a client and invoice for $XXX more because you "threw in more time" to complete their project. The client would be unhappy. So if you donate 10 hours, you ONLY work 10 hours.


As for how the work is seen...

Yes if you show open-ended, non-paying, get-it-done-whenever, work it's not as favorable as showing work in a portfolio which was bound by restraints. Again, how a designer performs under demand is more telling overall. And it's any lack of demand that tends to devalue a portfolio piece overall.

Most employers are seeking someone to complete projects in a timely manner with some given client demands. Explaining that you donated X hours to OrganizationY and this is how you spent those hours meeting their demands for X, Y, and Z does give insight into how a designer will perform under time restraints. And X hours of work can be translated to dollar amounts for any potential employer.

This provides a method of showing free work which is bound by much of the sane restraint paying work would be bound by.

You will come across clients, paying or otherwise, that will abuse you to some degree. Expecting more time from you or more effort than would be traditionally be necessary. You should be willing to walk away from these clients. More so if they are non-paying clients.

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  • Another great answer in addition to Zach's. I think I feel much more comfortable with the idea of "invoicing for time" as you put it, rather than money (at least at this stage). Clearly there is no single answer to this broad question. – Wossname Feb 14 at 21:23

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