Thinking about a pro-bono policy; being deliberate about what I do for free, discount, or barter

| business, life

After sketchnoting all these designers and artists talking about the value they get from experimenting with personal projects, I’ve been thinking about how I want to be deliberate about how much time I spend on other people’s projects versus my own.

Professional projects are easy to decide because I know the value of each engagement. I can then choose how much I want to work, and fit as much as I want inside that time. It helps that my savings mean I don’t need the money, and the experiment structure means that I need to carve out time to explore self-initiatives instead of just saying yes to what people ask me to do. I like my main consulting engagement, and I accept the occasional illustration or sketchnoting engagement depending on my interests and availability.

Pro-bono projects are where I get to exercise choice and negotiation. There are many, many things I would like to do with my time, of course. Some requests are someday/maybe things, so I add them to my list of things that people are interested in(with a note about who asked), and I get to them when the mood moves me. Some requests are time-based, like sketchnoting an event. Some requests are a mix of flexibility and commitment, such as when I schedule time to help someone with Emacs or similar things.

So I’m figuring out my rules of thumb for saying yes or no to requests, and for increasing the value that I get and create out of moments like that. I can simply say yes or no, but wouldn’t it be awesomer to use that for negotiation practice and to open up even more opportunities? Here are some of the things I’ve been thinking about:


If the event charges for participation or has significant sponsorship, then it’s fair that I charge. These are the not-really-pro-bono projects. If you’ve managed to demonstrate the business case for participants or sponsors, we should be able to work something out. In rare situations, I may swap this for some intangibles, but you should then be prepared to invest time or introductions.

If you don’t have a large budget but you really want me to help, talk to me anyway. I can help you build a business case that might draw in additional sponsorship. We might be able to find non-monetary things to swap, such as time and insights. I might give you an “awesome people discount” because you’re working on a cause that I want to support.

If I’m pitching an event that I really like, it’s too late in the budget cycle to rustle up more money or I know it’s the sort of event that tends to run at a loss, and it’s the sort of thing that will be a good fit for people who read my blog, I may do it for free, with the understanding that I may switch to something else if a professional opportunity or something more interesting comes up.

If you want white-labeled sketchnotes with only your branding and no mention of me, exclusive distribution (including confidential sketches), multiple revisions, or the copyright, that definitely calls for a premium rate.

Toronto venues (accessible by bike or public transit) are good, as are high-quality live-streamed conferences (good audio and view of the slides). I limit my travel, so it would have to be something truly exceptional for me to leave home.

If the event is free to attend, there’s minimal sponsorship, and it’s a cause I want to support or a topic I’m interested in anyway, then I may take it on (again, with no commitments). In terms of topics, I’m interested in entrepreneurship, business, technology, and design. I prefer to sketchnote fascinating speakers, particularly those who blog or tweet interesting and things (not just self-promotional broadcasts). I can sketchnote a badly-structured or unengaging talk, but it’s not fun, and I may end up sketching the talk I wish the person had given instead.

I’m leaning towards reducing these and spending more time drawing my own things, though.


I occasionally help people with Emacs, mostly through the #emacs channel on or through questions and comments on my blog. I do this for free because I like the Emacs community and I want to help it grow. I can do one-on-one coaching sessions on a pay-what-you-can-and-what-you-think-it-was-worth basis. I accept Paypal, donations to Emacs-related things like the Emacswiki, blog posts / written-up notes after the session, and a number of other things that I value.

For more involved help (WordPress, Rails, computer help, etc.), (a) you have to be directly related or a really good friend, OR (b) it has to be a one-off question that intrigues me and promises to be a useful blog post. Also, you have to be cool with my potentially making mistakes, so I don’t want to be on the hook for anything mission-critical.


I don’t accept unsolicited self-promotional guest blog posts on my blog, so people can stop pitching me. =) I generally don’t accept invitations to write original content for other people, mainly because I’d rather post things on my blog. You can suggest things you’d like me to write about. If I think it might be interesting, I’ll add it to my blog post ideas and write about it when it makes sense. I try to note who asked for a topic, so I might e-mail you once it’s up.

You are free to syndicate or excerpt my blog posts. I’d appreciate it if you link to the original blog post, and I’d love to hear your take on the topic and what other interesting discussions ensue.


“It would be great exposure!” I’m doing fine exposure-wise, actually. I don’t mind giving up short-term exposure in exchange for developing in my own way. I don’t need to be famous, and I don’t really need to go and reach a gazillion possible clients. For the next few years, I can work with only people I really like on things that people value.

“It’s a learning experience.” So are a lot of other things I can do, especially when it comes to learning how to follow my own initiative. =)

“There’ll be more work down the road.” I’m fine with the level of work I’m doing now, and I’m also fine with not having any of this and working on my own things for the next few years. Ah, the luxury of an experiment.

“How about being one of our sponsors?” This is related to the exposure thing. I don’t need the PageRank, the links, the referrals, or the warm-and-fuzzy glow. It’s nice, but the event should be interesting enough on its own.

“Hmm, that price is too high…” I’m experimenting with not lowering price unless I get extra value, do less work, or feel that the difference is something that passes my pro-bono guidelines. It’s actually easier and more fun to price that way instead of dealing with ambiguous value or talking yourself down. Besides, letting people make the negotiation all about price misses the point, and giving in teaches people to push without giving.

One of the interesting insights I picked up from FITC was the idea of value-based pricing – not just the value that the client gets, but the value of your time and energy. My experiment and my skills allow me to treat my time as valuable, and so I will.

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