A common approach for new freelance web designers is to offer their services free of charge to businesses. There are a few motivations for this:
- To build their portfolio
- To get experience
- To build contacts
- To gain exposure
- To get word of mouth referrals from those freebie clients.
This can be a lucrative way to get up and running quickly, but it requires careful consideration before jumping right in.
Firstly, I recommend digging into your reasons for wanting to work without pay. It could be that you really do need to get experience, gain exposure and build contacts, or it could be that you lack confidence in your abilities.
Dwell on this before taking the plunge, and then ask yourself the following questions…
Can you charge for your work?
I generally advocate against working on a pro bono basis.
This isn’t because I’m greedy, it’s because I know that in web design there are lots of things that can go wrong. And in my experience, the chance of problems emerging are multiplied when you’re working for free.
Often, your client doesn’t really value the work — because they’re not paying for it.
And somewhere inside, you don’t really value the work either, for the same reason.
This can create an environment where ideas and scope begin to spiral, making for a project that seemingly never ends and goes way beyond anything you set out to do.
So before you rush to offer your services for free to all and sundry, stop to consider whether this is really the right approach. You’d prefer to get paid for your time, wouldn’t you?
Can you charge a little?
Here’s something I’ve done in the past: offer to build a website free of charge on the agreement that the client hosts it with me and pays a minimal monthly maintenance fee.
This can be a win-win situation: you get a new client who will (eventually) pay you and the client gets a website without an up-front fee.
This is better than simply offering a “free website” because it puts some pressure on your client to commit. If they know there is some up-keep involved, and that they need to pay for it, the project becomes a little more serious. They have a vested interest in making it a success, as do you.
Top tips if you choose to offer free web development services
As I outlined above, you should avoid working completely free of charge. But if you feel this is something you must do, be sure to follow this advice from somebody who’s been there.
#1 Write a scope, sign a contract
One of the key drivers for offering pro bono web design services to clients is to “get experience”.
But the problem is, unless you abide by good business practices, you are squandering this opportunity to learn and truly get that experience; you’ll just be coasting along.
If you must work for free, use it as an opportunity to establish your formal processes, and this means agreeing a scope of work and having your client sign on the dotted line.
Even if the contract stipulates that no money will exchange hands, a scope of work (generally based on a proposal) is necessary to ensure that both you and your client know exactly what is being delivered, and when.
Too many new freelancers forgo all these important formalities just to get on with the work, but I would argue that these documents are even more important in the context of a pro bono project, where the assumption is often that the arrangement is loose to begin with. Keep it tight!
#2 Treat it like a paid project
Even though it isn’t, you should treat the project as if you were charging top-dollar for it.
Any sense from you (or the client) that the project is worth less will simply result in it dropping down the priority list. Just because it’s unpaid work, doesn’t mean you should take it any less seriously (especially if you’re in this to gain experience).
Manage it like a paid project to ensure all stakeholders take it seriously and do their bit.
#3 Be picky about who you work with
Ideally, this will be an opportunity for you to try working with different types of businesses. I always say that the best businesses have a clear niche client. Who do you want to work with?
If you’re not sure about this yet, take the time to at least work for a business that shares your values. I worked for a short-term loan company when I started out, which is totally at odds with my value system, and it felt completely wrong.
Take the time to understand the types of businesses and people you’d like to work with before you offer your time free of charge to them.
#4 Limit how much work you’ll do for free
Delivering pro bono work can be effective but it’s not a long-term strategy. Tell yourself that you’re going to do no more than 3 free websites, and then you’ll start charging.
Your mindset should be one of getting as much out of these free projects as you can (after all, you’re not getting any money!)
Have a plan to stop doing it, as soon as possible, and begin earning real money. Decide this before you take on your first client.
Pro bono work should be more about you than the client
Offering web development services free of charge can be dangerous. Even the most experienced developers struggle with managing clients. If you’re new to the game, you will most likely find working with people significantly more challenging than working with code.
So my closing piece of advice is this: use every moment to learn. Pay attention to everything from your development processes to the way you write emails to clients.
Note down your experiences in a journal.
Consider pro bono services as training for paid work.
Deliver free services right and you’ll build skills and confidence to last you a lifetime.