Managing charity, speculative and free graphic design requests

charity free graphic design

Charitable, speculative and free design work is regularly sought after in the design industry. While the terms are often interchanged, there are important distinctions between them which define whether designers should accept or refuse the work.

Free work:

There’s no shortage of people who want free graphic design work. The most common excuses are “we’re only a small business” or “we’re a start-up company”. If we’re being honest though, this is rubbish.

No retail store tells their wholesaler they can’t afford to pay for products because they’re small. No office says they can’t pay the rent because they’re only a start-up.

Graphic design is a service like any other, and like everyone else in this world, designers deserve and expect to get paid for their efforts. The expectation of free graphic design work from any business is simply unacceptable.

While it may be tempting for students or designers just starting out to undertake free work in the hope of things to come, your time is better spent elsewhere. Design some promotional work, write guest articles for exposure or contact a real charity (we’ll get to that in a minute) who really can’t afford it. Anything but working for free.

Speculative work:

Requests for free work are often dressed up as speculative, even though people have no intention to pay. For the purposes of this discussion, let’s pretend the client is legitimate in their promises to pay if they’re happy with the work. Even if this is the case, it’s still flawed thinking.

Not wanting to pay for something which isn’t right is understandable, but if you don’t have some amount of confidence in a designer, why are you dealing with them? No one hires a builder and thinks “I’m really getting a bad vibe from this guy. Some of his work looks pretty sloppy. Oh well, I’ll hire him anyway and if my house isn’t right I just won’t pay“. No, you contact someone else.

Spec work is most common in the form of design contests. A client promises an amount for the winning entry and depending on the terms & conditions of the provider, is often not required to pick a winner and can withdraw their offer. There is little to no risk for the client.

On the flip side of that coin, there is little to no chance for the designer to be compensated for their time. As a result they simply don’t care. Your design project is just one of many churn and burn jobs that the minimal amount of effort will go into for a chance at payment. Good graphic designers charge because they deliver a good service.

If you like a designers work but have any concerns, speak to them! Good designers care about the work they do and are just as eager for a successful project as you are.

Charity graphic design:

Contributing to a worthwhile charity is obviously a great thing, but “charitable organisations” come in many forms. You also may not support a particular organisation.

For example… I’ve done free design work in the past for local animal shelters, one in particular when I was living in Sydney. This cat shelter was run full time by one couple and a few dozen volunteers giving their time. They took in literally hundreds of cats, paying for everything themselves and with the help of modest donations. They only gave cats away to good homes and never put a single animal down. This is an organisation that deserves help.

On the other hand, I would not work for PETA, as they spend a great deal of money on advertising and legal battles while killing around 90% of the animals they “rescue”. (Note: That’s my personal view on the matter. No pro/anti PETA comments here please, as that topic would be better discussed elsewhere.)

You don’t need to wait for the right organisation to approach you either. Go out and find someone. There are plenty of suitable organisations with dud websites or clip-art pamphlets that would appreciate the help.

Where does charity stop?

Just because an organisation is charitable, doesn’t mean they don’t have funding. There are many national and international organisations with marketing budgets who hire agencies to co-ordinate their work.

It’s unfortunate, but some advertising agencies get paid work from charitable organisations then try to get free work from designers for the project. In this situation you’re working for the advertising agency, not the charity and you should be paid accordingly.

So what to do?

If business is good and you can give some time to a charitable organisation you support, that’s obviously great. Ultimately you’ve got to look out for number one, if the bills are piling up and your flat out, you should be focusing on paid work.

How do you manage charity, speculative and free graphic design work requests? Leave a comment and let me know.

11 thoughts on “Managing charity, speculative and free graphic design requests”

  1. Really great blog post on the subject, Andrew! You pretty much covered it all, as far as I can think of.

    I completely agree with you about free work. Although, I admit that I didn’t always think that way. My first real “design” experience came when I started making blog and MySpace layouts for myself, friends, and to be given out freely. I’d even take requests from people coming to my website. It was a lot of fun and probably is the reason I’m doing it professionally today. I ended up with the same view point as a lot of new designers coming into the field, that doing free work was fine because it gave you advertising and experience.

    This eventually led to joining design competitions, like 99Designs and one held on It seemed like a wonderful opportunity, and the “prizes” for winning seemed well worth the effort. I ended up sinking hours of work into these things and got nothing in return. I can’t even claim the designs I created as my own, because often these competitions claim rights to the work submitted. So much for a portfolio boost!

    My view on that has changed a lot now, especially after I gained a higher respect for what exactly design entails. It’s not just a couple hours of sticking a few things together. It’s research, social skills, hard work, and end results which can greatly affect the success of a company/website. The better the design, the better an advertisement it is, and the better a first impression the potential customer has. That’s extremely valuable. Sometimes people don’t quite get that.

    I’d still create free blog themes and graphics for distribution on my website, however. But, that’s different. It’s building my portfolio and skills on my terms with no set obligations. Also, it’s giving back to the community that has helped me get to where I am today. A much better option than doing speculative work.

    As for requests from companies to get work done for free… In my opinion, if a start-up company is really dedicated to making this work, they’ll be willing to take risks and budget for things like a website. Even if it’s the simplest one-page design to begin with, it can always be expanded in the future. Trying to get it done for free shows they don’t really have faith enough in it to put money forward.

    I honestly can’t agree more with that you said about charity work. You really would need to pick and choose who you want to volunteer your time for, just as you would if you wanted to go out and help a charity physically. Looking for dud websites is a great way to weed out the ones that really need it, too.

    You really need to be careful to specify what you are willing to do for free, though. Otherwise you could end up sinking a lot more time into the project than you can afford to give. You could make it clear at the beginning what you want to do for them and that, if they need more, you would be willing to work at a lower rate than you’d normally charge and work out a payment plan with them, if they are low funded.

    Anyway, that’s my thoughts. Thanks again for posting this. Going to share. :)

  2. I agree with you that working for nothing is almost always bad but there is one scenario where I permit “sweat equity”. And that’s when I do some work for somebody who pays me back in something other than money that I value more than the financial equivalent.

    For example, if an SEO expert asks me for a header, for example, I can do it for free and in return I can get the SEO expert to do some link building for me – or some priceless piece of advice. I do this sort of sweat equity deals with people who have skills and knowledge that’s advantageous to me.

    But, “will you do this for me for free so I can see your work. You will get a lot of work in the future if this works out.” Is a complete non-starter!

    I don’t want to waste my time, as I’m sure no one else does. :)

  3. Sarah,
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts, and for prompting this article with our discussion the other day.

    I’ve done a few bits and pieces in the past for friends too, but I do stress the word “friend”, as in people who have helped me move house or driven me to the airport. Real friend stuff, not some tenuous friend from having met them a few times. It’s important to draw that line between giving/repaying a favour and working for free.

    In theory I’d be open to trade of “sweat equity” as you put it. As I’m sure you’ve experienced though, vague promises of future work are of little value when it comes to bartering for services. I’m yet to be offered a trade of any real value.

  4. A while back I head the phrase “either charge full price or nothing”, and that kind of stayed with me.

    The gist of the phrase is work for a charity or non-profit organisation for free, and charge businesses full price for your services, but never reduce your rates because someone claims that they can’t afford your quote. Instead of reducing your price to please them, perhaps offer to allow them to pay over time, or hold off on parts of the project until a later date and only charge them for what they can afford.

    Be wary of people who will ‘misplace’ or ‘forget’ to pay your invoices though, and always ask for a 50% deposit up front. This is pretty much standard practice, and anyone who refuses to pay it is best avoided. I started asking for a deposit as soon as I started getting work coming in, and it gets easier over time. The clients who pay swiftly and without question are normally the clients you want to keep hold of.

    I find reading local community newspapers that drop through my door is a great way of finding charities who could use my services (and it also keeps me informed on new local businesses that have started up). As you mentioned Andrew, large charities are unlikely to need your services. It’s the smaller, individually run ones that really need your help. If it’s a cause that I really believe in then I’m happy to pay their printing costs too, so they don’t have to pay anything out.

    With regards to contest sites, these are best avoided at all costs. You’ll be competing against amateurs and even if you think “My designs will win because they’re professional”, most people who post jobs on such sites wouldn’t know professional design if they saw it, hence the reason why they’re using the sites in the first place.

    Other sites such as People Per Hour I’ve found to be a massive waste of time. Although you’re not working on spec like contest sites, you are bidding for jobs against many, many competitors. That is once you’ve sifted through the $50 logo requests with 20 people willing to accept the work. If you do find a job you like the look of and is worth your time, chances are your bid will be massively undercut by amateurs who plan to spend an hour on the job for some quick cash.

    My advice is to forget trying to find jobs online, or at least push it to the back of your mind, and instead get out into the real world, meet people face to face, network and get clients the old-fashioned way. Get some business cards printed up from a local printer and hand them out to people you speak to.

    As a starting freelance designer, you often don’t have the comfort of waking up in the morning, putting your fluffy slippers on and sitting down to pick and choose your jobs from your overflowing email inbox. A lot of the time you need to get out there and actually meet people first!

  5. How I manage such requests that I get really depends on the client. I’ve had arrangement with clients in the past where they said from the outset that cash is short, but they can pay in more regular instalments. But, it does depend on who the client is.

    I always ask for a partial payment up from and make this clear in my quotes. If someone doesn’t intend to pay, this really does weed them out.

    As for charities, for example, who may want the work done for free, I don’t think there’s any hard and fast rules for this; it’s all down to the individual designer regarding pro-bono work.

  6. Great topic, and I think one that comes up a lot in any creative industry. I believe Andrew, you’ve covered all the points.

    Whenever I do work for a not-for-profit or charity, I will always negotiate that my business is promoted (even a little) for the work. At the moment, I am doing a calendar for a youth organisation. They sold advertising to raise money and I insisted that my logo appear in the ‘main sponsors’ area. That way, I can write off the time/money as marketing and advertising – similar to what someone may do when they donate free product.

    I recommend that if you are going to do work for free, to invoice it for the full amount (as per usual) and then write off the total as a ‘Designer Discount’ or something along those lines. That was you can accurately record how much time was spent on the project, and the organisation is more ‘aware’ of how much they’re actually getting. I did this once, and ended up getting paid work from a charity, because they felt that they received a tremendous donation the first time around. Always put a value on your time, even when it’s you who’s paying for it.

    Paul, “Charge full price or nothing” is great and a good motto to have.

  7. Some good points there, especially with regards to charitable work.

    I have carried out many free works for charities, however I do have similar ground rules in place before I will help out – they need to be a ‘registered’ charity, and yes they cannot be giant like Peta, they need to be a small charity.

    I also limit the amount that I help, a flyer or two? Yes. A 20 page page brochure? No.

  8. I completely agree with your points regarding free work and your example of hiring a builder is excellent. We often say that you don’t buy a sandwich, take a bite, decide you don’t think there’s enough mayo and put it back on the shelf. It’s difficult to get this across sometimes though.

    We signed up with Pimp my Cause a while ago which was set up by one of the fellows from The Apprentice TV show in the UK a couple of years ago. It’s a place where various industry professionals list their skills and are then put into contact with viable (presumably thoroughly checked) charities. So far the experience has been very positive as it clearly sets out what is expected and also what you are willing to provide.

    I wonder where you stand on doing free work for family and friends? For me, these are often the biggest pain in the rear because they assume that you’ll go to the end of the Earth for them and saying an outright no can just cause long-lasting offence. My mother in law gave birth to my wife, for which I am very grateful – but should this mean that I now have to bend the knee to her every need? She never asks me to pay when I go round for Sunday lunch after all.

  9. Excellent article! I have done a considerable amount of pro bono work for organizations close to my heart – my way of giving back. And generally those portfolio items have provided a tremendous return on my investment generating new paid business. I often experiment with new technology with these projects – especially for websites that I perpetually support – as I learn something new and feel good about helping out. (My test kitchen per se.) So it’s a win win.

    However, I am frequently appalled at the number of requests received from completely unknown entities – too often with an attitude of entitlement and a lack of respect for my time and need to earn an income. Whether other non profits or start-up businesses – there is a shocking lack of realization that designers are professionals who create to earn a living as do others. But sadly till articles like yours and organizations like GAG and AIGA can educate our peers to stop indulging – it will not stop.

    The accessibility of sophisticated software such as Adobe Creative Suite and open-source CMS for websites enable some to fancy themselves ‘designers’ just because they own or can use the tools. So… we end up with amateurs who may think design contests and spec work are terrific and are opportunities that will lead to fast dollars without attention to the impact on the profession.

    Then there is the whole area of copyright and what is essentially design plagiarism. I actually experienced a flagrant copyright issue a couple years ago with a client website concept review meeting… I noticed a print-out of my website design sitting on the table and grabbed it to hold it up during in the discussion. To my shock, someone had modified my design and provided their version in hopes of taking my work and proving they could replicate it at a cheaper price. I am fully convinced that after completing the initial website wireframe work, they were going to bail. The ‘designer’ was the client’s girlfriend. The design was downloaded from my password protected client portal that includes a copyright disclosure the client must execute – stating clearly that all concepts and designs are my copyright until such time that I transfer copyright with a wriiten release form upon payment in full.

    The same lack of values above are often the basis for a nervy request for free business services or perceived right to steal someone else’s work. Because we can download a photo or snippet of web code from the Internet does not mean it is legal to use without payment or attribution.

    When approached by non profit organizations lacking budgets, if they are legit and are respectful in how they approach me, I might invest a phone call to advise them on alternative resources for their shoestring. For example, they might qualify for software through TechSoup and their volunteers can do the work, but they get what they pay for… In one case, this approach worked well for one organization who did their own thing for a couple years using a low cost vector icon and simple logotype for their brand identity. They used ready-made templates in Creative Suite to generate stationery and collateral and a host-based website builder since Dreamweaver was a bit overwhelming. It took about two years for them to amass stand alone marketing budget to ‘rebrand’ and launch a more sophisticated website, but it was a means to an end that also cultivated a deep respect within the organization for what I do – from the degree of difficulty, creative talent, and time involved. It was a lesson that many could learn from – versus the immediate gratification some want without investing or a bit of pain.

    Sorry to be so long-winded, but this obviously struck a nerve. Thanks again for the great article!

  10. Hi Andrew,

    Great article! I run a relatively new and small charity myself, in East Africa for street children and as much as I try to get freebies/donations for my charity; I also understand that we all must make a living somehow and I wouldn’t insult anyone by asking them to put in hard work for nothing; unless they wanted to. I run my own business on the side and I agree with ‘set prices or nothing’. I sometimes offer a reduced service or free service if one of my clients donates funds/items/service to my charity, apart from that normal prices apply. No ifs or buts.

    I wanted to give you a heads up, I have added you on Google+ with a view to promoting or using your work in future, mainly because I liked your portfolio, the story about the small charity tugged at my heart strings (I dislike/mistrust giant charities/NGO’s) and I like your honesty. So rare and refreshing these days!

  11. Hi Khadra,

    Thank you for your comment. It sounds like you and I are on much the same page regarding charity work.

    I’m a firm believer that honesty is the best policy in all things, despite the occasional conflicts it can cause.

    Bending the truth only delays the inevitable and a lie always comes back to you in the end. In the long run, I don’t think you can ever go wrong with the truth.

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