Avoid These Common Pro Bono Consulting Traps

Accepting clients pro bono, or for free, is a good strategy for both new and established consultants to grow a business. The general rule of thumb is that you give away some portion of your services in exchange for a benefit in return.

The idea behind it is that pro bono work gives you an opportunity to work with new businesses you typically wouldn't work with. You may be able to do more exciting, edgy work than your normal assignments. Pro bono work can give you a great deal of exposure to new audiences and can help create new business to increase your client base. 

Although this arrangement is often successful, it can also go downhill fast. Pro bono clients can quickly eat away at your business and leave you with few billable hours for paying clients. It's important to set firm boundaries so that you have time to dedicate yourself to your paying clients to keep your business profitable. Learn to avoid the pitfalls of pro bono work by avoiding these five common traps.

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Accepting Multiple Pro Bono Clients

Two businessmen discussing a pro bono document at a table in an office.
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When your services are free, it's easy to convince prospects to sign on as clients. You may be tempted to take on multiple clients to get more exposure and build a larger portfolio, but that means you won't have money coming in. Instead, take on only one pro bono client at any given time to properly balance paying and non-paying clients. This also maintains the integrity of your business and prevents it from being viewed as a low-cost option. 

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Starting a Project Without Defining the Scope of Work

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As you would with any paying client, create a scope of work so that both you and the client know what is expected. It should detail exactly what issue is being resolved, what services are being provided, and what the expectations are for successful completion. Without a document stating what each of you agree too, the client may demand more work than you intended, costing you money. 

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Working Without a Specified Completion Date

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Pro bono projects should always have an agreed-upon date of completion. Even if it's the type of project that doesn't have a clear finishing point, such as marketing services for a non-profit organization, agree upon a certain amount of time your services will be available. Otherwise, you may find yourself managing a project for months after you thought it would be over. 

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Accepting Work Without a Clear Mutual Benefit

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When offering your consulting services for free, the expectation is that your business will get something in return. This may include such things as referrals, testimonials, free advertising, or access to a customer database. Before taking on a pro bono client, define the mutual benefits and be clear on what it is you expect to gain. If the benefit to your business is not obvious, then it's probably not in your best interest to take the work. Don't be afraid to have these conversations; your client knows that you're a business person and that you expect some kind of return. 

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Giving in to Demanding Pro Bono Clients

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When a client is not paying for your services, it should be understood that they are not your top priority. That doesn't mean you will not do a good job, or you won't complete the project within the agreed time frame. It does mean that the bulk of your time and attention should be focused on paying clients. When a pro bono client has growing demands and increasingly urgent requests, that's the ideal time to renegotiate the agreement and make them a paying client.