How to Be a Pro at Pro Bono

Inspired by LinkedIn's new volunteer marketplace, I recently wrote a post advising organizations seeking help on some of the best practices for working with skilled volunteers. Now I have some tips for those who want to be pro bono pros.

  • Know what you want from the experience. Are you looking to add pieces to your portfolio? Make connections that could land you paid work down the line? If you go into the project with clear objectives, it's more likely that you'll be satisfied with the time and investment you put in.
  • Find an organization that's a good fit. You don't have to work with someone just because they need your help. If the organization doesn't help you achieve one of the goals you've identified for the experience, if they're demanding or unreasonable in their scope or timeline, or if you just don't like them, it's ok to walk away. Ideally you'll make that call before the project starts, but do not hesitate to responsibly transition the work to another volunteer or back to the organization if working with them isn't work.
  • Ask for a specific project or scope of work. It's not good for them or for you to pretend that this will be an indefinite engagement when it most likely won't be, so focus on a specific project or define the scope of work you'll be doing for them. For example, if an organization says, "We really need help with our social media," ask them to be more specific or make a proposal yourself. Rather than taking on management of their social media indefinitely (which isn't sustainable for you or for them), offer to set up their profiles or put together a social media strategy they can implement with limited staff time. Think along the lines of teaching an organization to fish, rather than pretending they'll always have you to fish for them. You'll leave them better off in the long run.
  • Write up a contract like you would if you were charging. I can't remember where I saw this advice, but it's solid. Rather than think it's a pain in the ass, every pro bono client I've done this with has been impressed because it demonstrates professionalism and commitment. It also helps keep the scope limited and makes the value of your work clear. The contract doesn't have to be extensive--in fact, here's one that I've used in the past for a pro bono project.
  • Set and enforce boundaries. Contracts also make it easy to enforce boundaries and you may have to do a lot of this. Organizations may treat you like they treat their full-time employees, as someone who's at their beck and call and is hostage to whatever demands or timeline changes they want to make. That ain't you, but sometimes you have to be the one to remind them of that, so be prepared.