Should Freelance Writers Do Pro Bono Work?

by Anne Wayman

pro bonoTo work pro bono simply means to work at no charge and/or to donate your work.

Often associated with lawyers and legal work, the pro bono term is expanding to cover other professionals including freelance writers.

Besides, it sounds a bit better, maybe, than writing for free.

However, before you immediately jump into giving your writing away, there are some things you should consider.

You’re worth paying

If you’re a decent writer, understand that many many people simply cannot string words together in ways that make sense. The ability, which in my opinion is first a gift, then a practice, is special. Oh sure, there are thousands of writers out there – official statistics in 2013 put the number at 145,900 in the U.S. Which seems incredibly low to me. Regardless, if you write reasonably well and you market yourself you deserve to be paid.



I’ve written about this, of course, here quite awhile ago, but I’ll stand by what I said there.

Pro bono writing can lead to paid writing

Tara Lynne Groth over at over at Write Naked wrote Why Pro-Bono Work is Worth More Than Paid Work. It’s a fun read and she gives real world examples of how writing for free led to paid work. Her argument is based on the idea that you need samples before you can expect to be paid.

What about those samples?

Many publications want to see samples of your writing before they are willing to hire you. I wrote No Writing Clips? No Problem! which aimed at helping you find credits you hadn’t thought of. Which works.

Pro bono writing also creates published samples, which certainly is one way to get the clips.

And if you have your own blog or even a professional writing site you can write samples and publish them there. Make sure they’re labeled samples and don’t try to pass them off as published work. Mostly editors want to be sure you can write and your samples demonstrate that. Sure, you’ll run into a few who feel you have to be published, officially, before they’ll take a chance; You needn’t worry about them too much.

Non-profits have a budget

Often it’s not-for-profit organizations that will push for no or at least reduced fees. What many writers (and others) overlook is almost every non-profit has a budget of some sort. Most have an amount set aside for public relations, or advertising, or promotion – some way to get the word about them out to the public. Non profits can often pay you from these categories. It simply makes sense to ask about those funds when you’re talking with them.

Many writers discount their fees by 10 percent, give or take, for non-profits. It’s something to consider. Just make sure you can afford the pay cut.

Pro bono writing is a great way to give back

Most of us have favorite charities or causes. Offering to do some pro-bono writing for them is a great way to give back. It will make you feel good, it will do some good, and it will get you some clips that might be helpful. You might even run into an individual who has a writing project they can’t afford to pay or pay much for.

Put boundaries on your pro bono writing

When you think about writing for free, put some boundaries on it. Figure out what kind of writing you want to do – blogging, press releases, etc. Pick something that’s either easy for you or that will teach you something (hat tip: Paula Hendrickson). Decide how much time you’re willing to donate and keep track of it. You might be able to deduct some of it – ask your tax person.

Does this make sense to you? What would you add? 

Write well and often,

Anne Wayman, freelance writer



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{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Sue Chehrenegar March 9, 2017 at 1:54 pm

I agree with the idea of setting limits. You do not want to become a doormat. I used to write a few newspaper articles for a local faith-based group. I did that while I had a job as a research associate, so that I would feel motivated to keep writing.

After I left that job, I began to look for jobs as a reporter. The first job that I got paid just $20 per article. Still, some of the people that had benefited from my free articles complained when I go paid $20 for writing about a Girl Scout troop. The leader of that troop was a member of the faith group that had benefited from my free PR efforts.

Reply

Anne Wayman March 28, 2017 at 8:06 am

Sue, many of us started with a local newspaper and got $20 bucks… not much, but a real credit and, as you point out, readers benefited.

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Mark March 9, 2017 at 11:51 am

Hi, all,

I’m split on Pro Bono. First–and this is obvious to every professional–freelancers have expenses just as the clients do. If we work free, we cannot pay said expenses, which include rent, utilities and laundry. On the other hand, as you have stated, Anne, Pro Bono work produces samples that can lead to paid work down the line. That would seem the natural order of the process, so no harm done.

Still, the decision to work for free or pay depends on the circumstances involved. Beginners are advised or expected to write for both free and low-paying to get their proverbial feet wet. However, as one grows within a profession, one’s worth increases. More experienced freelancers are in a different set than less experienced (not to mean “better” or “superior” but different), so Pro Bono work is harder to provide in light of other contingencies involved.

For me, I allow up to approximately 200 free words, sometimes a 500/w for sampling, as long as I have no interest in using the article beyond evaluative purposes. I am careful, though, because many clients are looking for free work. I am not a slave, but I understand budget restraints, especially with new ventures. Again, it depends on several factors.

One main factor is the size of the work and what it entails. A few years ago, a potential client reached me through Facebook with a request for me to write his book for him. This book would require hours, even days and weeks, worth of research, and then the actual writing. This project would have taken no fewer than six months of focused, stringently applied concentration. He admitted to being unable to pay. I understood that, but I would have had to disregard all other paying work in order to meet his deadline. I sympathized, as his budget restraints and subject were truly worthy of consideration, but I could not go that long a period of time without pay–a week, yes; six months, no. That’s what motivated me to opt against the job, even though the project sounded exciting and challenging to say the least. I do have regrets, but I stand by my policies as an experienced professional, as those policies exist for reasons already inferred and others not.

In the end, I am always nice but firm, and my final decisions are based on everything going on in my life , not to mention who the client is.

I have no problems writing free article clips, but not feature articles or books. The differences between these are just too vast.

Reply

Mark March 9, 2017 at 11:44 am

Hi all,

I’m split on Pro Bono. First–and this is obvious to every professional–freelancers have expenses just as the clients do. If we work free, we cannot paid said expenses, which include rent, utilities and laundry. On the other hand, as you have stated, Anne, Pro Bono work produces samples that can lead to paid work down the line. That would seem the natural order of the process, so no harm done.

Still, the decision to work for free or pay depends on the circumstances involved. Beginners are advised or expected to write for both free and low-paying to get their proverbial feet wet. However, as one grows within a profession, one’s worth increases. More experienced freelancers are in a different set than less experienced (not to mean “better” or “superior” but different), so Pro Bono work is harder to provide in light of other contingencies involved.

For me, I allow up to approximately 200 word free, sometimes a 500/w for sampling, as long as I have no interest in using the article beyond the purpose of exemplification. I am careful, though, because many clients are looking for free work. I am not a slave, but I understand budget restraints, especially with new ventures. Again, it depends on several factors.

One main factor is the size of the work and what it entails. A few years ago, a client reached me through Facebook with a request to write his book for him. This book would require hours, even days and weeks, worth of research, and then the actual writing. This project would have taken no fewer than six months of focused, stringently applied concentration. He admitted to being unable to pay. I understood that, but I would have had to disregard all other paying work in order to meet his deadline. I sympathized, as his budget restraints and subject were truly worthy of consideration, but I could not go that long a period of time without pay–a week, yes; six months, no. That’s what motivated me to opt against the job, even though the project sounded exciting and challenging to say the least. I do have regrets, but I stand by my policies as an experienced professional, as those policies exist for reasons already inferred.

In the end, I am always nice but firm, and my final decisions are based on everything going on in my life as well, not to mention who the client is.

Again, in a nutshell: it depends on the circumstances involved. I have no problems writing free article clips, but not feature articles or books. The differences between these are just too vast.

Reply

Mark March 9, 2017 at 12:02 pm

Sorry for the confusion on this one. I subsequently discovered some typos and immediately edited and reposted.

Reply

Anne Wayman March 28, 2017 at 8:07 am

No worries… I know typos drive you crazy, but they happen.

Reply

Probloggerhub March 9, 2017 at 7:01 am

Freelance writers should not do Pro Bono work because content is a very lucrative business to venture

Reply

Anne Wayman March 28, 2017 at 8:09 am

Well, maybe occasionally 😉

Reply

Kevin Davies March 8, 2017 at 3:08 pm

Needed to compose you a very little word to thank you yet again regarding the nice suggestions you’ve contributed here.
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Alex Gazzola March 8, 2017 at 1:15 am

I think we broadly agree. My take is you should never do it for ‘free’ – but that doesn’t necessarily mean no pay. You should be getting something – be it valuable experience or cuts, a favour in return, or merely that warm glow of helping somebody out who needs to be helped out.

But feel there should be a line. It’s a selfish decision, but the wider writing community should also be in your mind. Is continuing to accept pro bono with a particular ‘client’ undermining the idea that writers should normally be paid? If you encourage the idea among editors or commissioners that many writers are prepared to work for nothing or little, then that doesn’t help the profession and its members in the long run.
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Anne Wayman March 8, 2017 at 4:14 pm

You’re absolutely right, Alex. Compensation doesn’t have to be money… thanks for reminding all of us of that.

Reply

John Soares March 7, 2017 at 10:41 am

Anne, you lay out important reasons to do pro bono work. I’ve done a bit of pro bono work, usually for nonprofits I’ve joined, but it’s important to know when we should charge for our services. Like you say, many nonprofits do have a budget for paying freelancers, although I usually charge nonprofits a bit less than I do businesses.
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Anne Wayman March 7, 2017 at 10:50 am

Thanks John, seems we’re on the same page again.

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Mark March 9, 2017 at 11:59 am

I’m with you, John. The client is a determining factor. I would charge a different fee for a small business venture than I would a corporate entity that can clearly afford higher rates.

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