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Designing for a Cause? Find out What It’s Really like First

Posted 3 years ago by Graeme Fulton
Designing for a Cause? Find out What It’s Really like First

Designing for social good through volunteering opportunities and pro-bono work can be really rewarding. However, it isn't always straight forward - before jumping in, it's a good idea to get an understanding of the challenges involved with doing design work to help charities and non-profits.

To help out, we spoke to a few people who have first-hand experience in the field to find out what it's really like working pro-bono as a designer. Some of them have built companies with mission for change, whilst others have advice on what works and what doesn’t. In all, you'll find advice and lessons based on solid experience, and also some useful resources from leaders in this field.

Check out the contents section below for the list of people we spoke to, and feel free to jump to the parts you're interested in:

Matthew Manos of verynice.

Verynice is a global design-strategy consultancy that ignites movements, builds brands, and changes perspectives.

We asked the founder of verynice, Matthew Manos, a few questions:

How do you make pro bono work work?

A common misconception is that giving something away is the same as losing something. I’ve found that this is far from the truth, because pro-bono work is mutually beneficial. There are a few things a practitioner needs to do in order to get the most out of their pro-bono endeavors.

  1. Clearly communicate with the pro-bono client the value of your project, even though it is being done for free.
  2. Create, and execute, a formal agreement in order to solidify a scope and timeline for the pro-bono project.
  3. Keep in touch with the beneficiary of your pro-bono work after the project to learn how it impacted their organization.

"A common misconception is that giving something away is the same as losing something."

How do you ensure a project is seen through, and time is used effectively?

At verynice, we treat pro-bono and sliding scale rate projects the same as a full market rate endeavor. We do this by signing a pro-bono agreement, and by dedicating a project manager to the initiative. Unfortunately, many practiconers fail to treat a pro-bono project the same as their paid endeavors. In doing so, they fail to clearly showcase the value of their time and work. Here’s an excerpt from my book, How to Give Half osf Your Work Away for Free, where I talk about “value”:

It is assumed that when something is given away for free, it loses value. This assumption comes from a collective understanding that when something is free, there is no exchange of value. This pre-conceived understanding is rooted in the thought that “value” and “money” are one in the same, but they are not. In fact, “monetary value” is just one of many types of value. For a business, value can come in many forms, but most commonly, value can be bucketed into the following give and take dichotomies:

a. Value Monetary Exchange
b. Value Networking and Contact Development
c. Value Expansion of a Business’ Capabilities
d. Value Marketing and Public Awareness

As a rule of thumb, a service-provider should remain weary of a project that does not at least offer 3 of the above 4 values in return for the success of their project. A paid project that has an NDA (non-disclosure agreement) attached to it, for example, will result in monetary exchange, networking and contact development, and an expansion of business capabilities. A pro-bono project, as an additional example, will result in networking and contact development, expansion of business capabilities, as well as marketing and public awareness.

Get Involved

If you are a designer looking to get involved with verynice, send us an email (info@verynice.co), and our team will follow up with you to learn more about your work, and welcome you to our network.

Sam Applebee of Super Global

What is Super Global?

We’re a global community that connects social problem solvers with expert creative and tech agencies. We facilitate digital product design, development and data science projects, and conduct research to optimisation these collaborations. I’m going to make the case that for mission-critical projects we need less pro bono, not more.

How do you make pro bono work work?

We don’t think it does work. Not in the long-term, anyway. We need to increase the quality and supply of creative and tech services into the social sector. Pro bono relationships make this harder. Agencies can do a very limited amount of work pro bono and the projects are prone to quality problems and breakdown.

Socially impactful work needs to be sustainable for agencies. Demand from the social sector is set to increase and we have a responsibility to fulfil their needs. For-good work needs to make up a significant chunk of agencies’ portfolios. This won’t happen if it’s all done for free.

Demand from the social sector is set to increase and we have a responsibility to fulfil their needs.

The lack of a financial exchange between organisations sets a project up for difficulty. We’re used to price dictating all sorts of assumptions about expectations, commitment and ownership. Take money out of the equation and all these things need to be defined explicitly. The strength of the social contract between agency and client must compensate for the lack of a monetary contract.

More about these dynamics is in this article.

Pro bono is dead, long live pro bono!Is it time for creative/tech agencies to stop doing free work for charities and NGOs?

How do you ensure a project is seen through, and time is used effectively?

Why do we wear helmets while cycling in the city? A) in case we do something stupid and crash. B) In case someone else does something stupid and we get hurt. If you haven’t worked with a social organisation before, doing it pro-bono is like learning to ride a bike without a helmet on. Even professional cyclists are extra careful when they’re not wearing a helmet.

Unless the agency has experience working with a social organisation pro bono, and the client has experience working on technology projects, then they’re going to have to learn to work together. At best this is exciting and testing in equal measure. With this in mind the best way to reduce the learning load is for some money to change hands in order to create a baseline for expectations, commitment and ownership.

"These projects and relationships will likely be more complex to navigate that any you’ve experienced before"

At Super Global we ask our members to offer for-good rates somewhere between their normal commercial rate and their at-cost rate. If every social project was in this bracket then we’d have a lot more high quality creative and tech expertise applied to social problems.

Beyond this safety net there are of course plenty of behaviours that agencies can adopt to reduce the risk of breakdown. They’re well covered in the rest of this article and Jonty of Hactar’s excellent guide.

What other advice do you have for designers wanting to get involved?

Don’t forget the principles that guide your professional work when trying to do something good. It’s so easy to get caught up in the excitement and just try to wing it. These projects and relationships will likely be more complex to navigate that any you’ve experienced before. Treat the challenge with respect.

Get Involved through your Agency

If you’re part of an agency then apply for Super Global membership and we’ll help you find socially impactful projects and deliver successfully.

Rebecca Rae-Evans of Tech for GoodLive

Meetups are a great place to find different advice and opinions on volunteering, so we spoke to Rebecca Rae-Evans of Tech for GoodLive, a meetup in Manchester, UK.

What is Tech for GoodLive?

Tech for GoodLive is a meetup for tech enthusiasts who want to make the world a better place - from rampant AI's and gamification to social fundraising and new ways of donating.

What are your thoughts on volunteering for designers?

I have mixed thoughts on volunteering. In some form or another, I’ve been involved in volunteering my whole life, and I’ve found it to be most successful when it’s a small job that can be done on an ad-hoc basis; something that can be done in an afternoon and there’s no further commitment.

"I’ve found it to be most successful when it’s a small job that can be done on an ad-hoc basis"

At Reason Digital, it’s not uncommon for us to see charities in need of a new website because they’ve had one half built by a volunteer and have been left in the lurch. I’m sure these people meant well, but life gets in the way and charities can end up with unusable websites. On the flip side of that, some charities are far too small and unable to find funding for their digital design needs, so this is their only option.

Do you have any advice for volunteers looking to use design (UX) skills?

At the start of my career I volunteered my time to charities both in mundane posts like packing bags in supermarkets and decorating rooms, but also in design, social media, fundraising and other areas related to my potential career. It helped me get ahead and practice my craft. And I would recommend it to people who want to get ahead in their career. But a polite warning to make sure you don’t leave those charities in the lurch. Try and follow a project through to the end and treat it professionally.

I’ve also been on the receiving end of working with volunteers and 70% of the time the work is useless to me, because it’ll be low standard, half finished, finished too late or the relationship was too high maintenance for me to maintain. So please try not to be a burden on whoever you’re volunteering for. Make sure they get as much out of it as you do, if not more.

"Try and follow a project through to the end and treat it professionally."

Where volunteering would be extremely helpful to the sector is by becoming a board member or trustee of a charity if you have digital, brand or design knowledge. You’ll have to attend regular meetings, and you’ll have some homework to do and have to make decisions. But this will bring much needed creative and digital knowledge to the sector and will be genuinely useful to the organisation.

Remember that if you like working in the charity or tech for good sector, there are also full-time, paid jobs available at agencies like Reason Digital or charities themselves, or other ethical companies.

How can you get involved?

There are plenty of non-profits at our events looking for people to work with them on their digital presence. There’s also plenty of are academics, or other people working in the creative industries, looking to collaborate on fun projects.

Meet-ups and events themselves are a good example; they’re often volunteer-led. Tech for Good Live is 90% volunteer-led and we’re always looking for people to help out in some way — whether it’s periscoping an event or editing some video.


Social Design Meetups – MeetupFind Meetups about Social Design and meet people in your local community who share your interests.
Tech for Good Live | Podcast on SoundcloudJoin us on a meandering ramble through the ever changing landscape of tech that makes the world a better place.

Jonty Sharples of Hactar

What is Hactar?

Hactar’s a full-service digital studio with a commitment to social good. Collectively we have over 80 years industry experience. We work almost exclusively in the beyond profit space; charities, education, not-for-profits, and social enterprises.

How do you make pro bono work work?

We don’t.

We charge for everything, in as nice a way as possible. There are always going to be edge cases for pro bono work, but we’re not the folk to supply it. There’s just no way we can ensure paid projects won’t encroach on voluntary work.

In the past I’ve always encouraged the agencies I’ve worked at to consider taking on pro bono projects for down time. However, down time is a risk.

"There’s just no way we can ensure paid projects won’t encroach on voluntary work."

If you’re after a fuller answer, I wrote 4,500 words on the subject here, and have given talks at TedX, Glug (some strong language), DXN, and General Assembly.

How do you ensure a project is seen through, and time is used effectively?

In my opinion the only way for pro bono projects to be completed effectively is for the time and team to be walled off from the rest of the agency, for expectations to be well managed from the get go, and absolute honesty from both sides. I’ve never agreed to any pro bono work that, when phased, cannot be completed to the usual high standards in a matter of days. Bite-sized chunks is the name of the game.

What advice do you have for designers wanting to get involved?

Proceed with caution. This isn’t a magic sandbox where you get to play around those ideas your other clients have been averse to. If you’re providing pro bono work for a beyond profit their needs must come first. And be honest; if you can’t do the work or you think you might have trouble delivering within a reasonable timeframe, you must say so. Don’t make them chase you.

"Bite-sized chunks is the name of the game."

More Resources

To summarise, we've seen that any pro-bono work or volunteering carried out is most worthwile when beneficial for all parties, meaning that if you can't commit to long term projects, it's often best to focus on smaller pieces of work to ensure projects are completed. Either that, or aggree on terms before hand so that everybody knows what to expect. A fantastic guide to follow which goes into great depth is the guide "How to Give Half Your Work Away for Free" by verynice:



How to Give Half of Your Work Away for Free - Second Edition | By veryniceHow to Give Half of Your Work Away for Free is a book that aims to open-source the 50% pro-bono business model invented by Matthew Manos known as the “double-half” methodology.

Furthermore, another community based initiative that provides structure and guidance to volunteering is OpenIDEO:


OpenIDEO is a global community platform set up by IDEO to “harness collaboration for social good”. It's a great tool to kickstart your own project, or join a cause that’s already up and running. Each challenge has it’s own timespan of 7 stages, and you can join in and contribute at any point:

Useful sites

AIGI has a great list of Design for Good initiatives, as well as How Design:

AIGI: Design for Good resourcesLooking for additional ways to design for good? This list of organizations and programs is a great place to start.
Design for Good: Designing for Social ChangeDesigners hold the key to influencing successful socially conscious initiatives. Read the stories and see the work of design projects featured in the Designing Change column from HOW magazine..

What Design Can Do is also worth looking at for events and news:

What Design Can DoAcross all of our initiatives, our aim is to present best practices and visions, to provoke discussion and to facilitate fruitful exchange between disciplines.

Find Opportunities

Finally, if you're happy to start looking for opportunities, check out our "One-Stop Guide to the Best Volunteering Sites":

Designing for a Cause? A One-Stop Guide to the Best Volunteering SitesThere's no doubt that working on something we care about is both rewarding and exciting, especially if it aligns with a…

Designer, Writer and Developer at Marvel! Say hello on Twitter.

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