Pro Bono Interior Design: When to Say Yes

Opportunities for pro bono work may pop up during your design career and can be an amazing vehicle for growing your design business. There are many things to be considered when deciding whether your design firm is up to the task. Here are some guidelines to help you decide if you should say yay or nay to donating your time and talent.

Getting Exposure

If your design firm is a startup or you’re new to your community, pro bono work could be a great opportunity for you to introduce yourself and your company to the world. Conversely, if you’ve been in business for a while but are looking for a way to make a splash on the design scene, this is definitely a way to get the attention of potential clients. If you’re a personality that cringes at the thought of self promotion, doing pro bono work is an excellent way to get your name out, put your company out front and let someone else sing your praises.

When the Client Pool is Low

A perfect way to invest in your business when times are slow is through charitable giving. Since pro bono work shouldn’t take precedence over paying design clients, taking on pro bono projects when there’s a lull in business frees you from that worry. If design clients aren’t knocking down your door with projects, donating your services could keep you and your team busy in the mean time. ( Get more tips on how to handle slow times here.)

Charitable Contributions and Investing in Your Community

You’ve heard the old adage that it’s better to giver than to receive. Pro bono work is a perfect way to use you interior design skills to give to your local charity. Think of causes that have a need for interior design services. Charities that involve women and children, children with illness’ or disabilities are places you can begin in your search. You’ll realize that the possibilities to make use of your creative talent for a good cause are endless.

To Catch a Client

Working with arts companies, ballets and other local organizations on a pro bono basis is a great way to get your foot in the door and make way for the possibility of future paying interior design projects. These companies typically have budgets that make provisions for annual redesigns. If you’ve done pro bono work for them, you’re on their radar and they’re likely to call you back – with pay. This could also open new doors and provide great networking opportunities for you and your design team.

Portfolio Growth

One of the great things about taking any design job is its ability to expand your portfolio. When looking at taking on pro bono interior design projects, portfolio potential may be a factor that could make or break the deal for you. Consider whether the end product has the potential to be award-winning or if you could be working with a revolutionary product, concept or company. Answering yes to these questions could make the decision for you before much else is considered.

Once you’ve considered these factors and decided to accept the challenge, hammer out details between you and the client then put everything in writing. Below are some negotiable items to consider when putting together your contractual agreement.

Creative Carte Blanche

Typically designers have a great deal of creative control on a pro bono project. Discuss this at length, as you would with any client, and make sure you and the client are in agreement about the guidelines. Most organizations will have some parameters within which you should execute your vision, so don’t get crazy. Keep your ego in check and remember that this should be a win-win for everyone involved.


Ensure that you will receive the full “Design by” credit printed in footnotes of any materials the client produces- especially press releases. Also, ask to have “Design by” credits posted in a prominent place on the site and how long the signage should remain on the site.

Print Copies

Ask for copies of any promotional materials the client produces to announce to your mailing list the completion of your project. You could also ask the client to cover postage for these mailings. This is especially effective with arts organizations due to their healthy mailing budgets.

Bonuses & Negotiables

Remember that song that said “I ain’t to proud to beg”? Asking for season tickets or recognition as a corporate sponsor is not too much to ask when you’ve donated your services. At best you end up with tickets or being a corporate sponsor. At worst they say no. Either way, you’ll never know unless you ask.

The Caveats:


When considering a pro bono client, steer clear of start-up companies who are “in need”. The risks of taking on such a client could cost you more than money. You risk setting a precedent for cheapening your brand, having the client lose respect for the design process and negatively impact the industry as a whole. Should the client offer you a subsequent paying job, you chance being ridiculed for your because “the last project didn’t cost that much.” I suggest sticking to giving your time to nonprofits, charities and local arts companies to reduce the risk of such encounters. You’ll save yourself time money and a huge headache by just saying no.

Vendor Offender

Asking your vendors or subcontractors for free or discounted products or services is a subject that is a bit touchy. I suggest having the client request pro bono work from subcontractors. If you know vendors that may want to help, by all means refer them. However, having the client barter with vendors allows the vendor to negotiate their credits and terms with the client and have those discussions remain between them. It also keeps your hands clean if they don’t get the same terms as you from the client in the end.

Being very selective when approaching these types of projects will be key to the success of this strategy. Failure to do so could open the door to huge regrets. However, when done right, pro bono work could be the stepping stone to your next big design project.

By V. Carr
Managing Director
The Interior Design Resource Agency
Copyright 2011 All Worldwide Rights Reserved
Image by StockSource 


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