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Why Pro Bono Projects Can be Dangerous for Freelancers

pro bono projectsPro bono projects are the ones we undertake to do at no charge, aka free.

We all get asked to ‘write for free‘ and you’ve heard me caution against it in many cases. Sigh!

While there can be good reasons to give away from of your writing, be careful.

Be extra careful if you find yourself volunteering for what might be called a project. It probably includes some writing and is likely to also require some meetings, and any number of things that take you, (and me) away from our writing.

Ah the interesting worthwhile project!

Let me give you an example that I’m working with at the moment. Three or four weeks ago I ran into the CEO/Founder of a tech start-up non-partisan, non-profit organization that has developed a way of audit elections before an election is certified. If there’s a discrepancy, the certification can be delayed until a real investigation is held. I love it!  (It’s called DemocracyCounts! and you can get all the info you want at the web link.) It’s important work that makes total sense to me and I quickly volunteered.


And, as happens in startups, there was and is a ton of work to be done. Not only that, this landed in my life when I was fiddling with all sorts of nasty tech issues – part of my writing because I’m a blogger – that I can do but find boring to the max. Since I don’t like being bored one bit, I quickly set aside some projects of mine to have more fun with the new.

That’s precisely the danger I’m talking about.

It’s chasing the bright shiny object rather then settling in with the mundane. It’s the chop wood carry water that can be ignored in a heart beat, leaving you freezing and thirsty in winter if you’re not paying attention. And I wasn’t paying attention, not at first.

Fortunately, this is a good group of folks, many who have their own projects. No one bats an eye when I say I can’t do that now, or ever, or that need time to do something else. Which made it pretty easy for me to get back to my work while still helping the startup. (Not all organizations that use volunteers are good about honoring your commitments. It’s hard to tell in advance, but if you find yourself being urged to do more than you should, or want to, it may make sense to back off completely.)

It doesn’t have to be either or

As you well know one of the great things about freelancing is we (mostly) control our own time. Which is what allows us to take on occasional pro bono projects. It does mean, however that it’s up to us to manage our time in a way that lets us get the paid work done and keep our paying clients happy.We have to set and enforce our boundaries.

Said sightly differently, I’m the only one who can sort out how much I can handle and where my efforts should go.

What’s been your experience with pro bono projects?

Write well and often,

Anne Wayman, freelance writer



{ 2 comments… add one }
  • Hi, I really like reading your article. It’s short and easy to relate to.
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    • sigh, if you look at the menu on the top of every page you’ll see a tab called no guest posts… it’s worth a read.

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