Dear Nonprofit: NOPE

Before you volunteer your skills, get clear on what causes are most important to you

Jo Layne Skillman
Aug 14, 2019 · 5 min read
Photo: Hero Images/Getty Images

Raise your hand if you’ve ever been hit up for free (or deeply discounted) work.

Keep your hand up if you said yes to doing the free (or deeply discounted) work because it was “for a good cause.”

Drop that hand onto your face if you ended up hating everything about the experience of the free (or deeply discounted) work you ended up doing. That’s a facepalm, and it’s the correct response to a whole lot of the donated work designers and marketers end up doing.

I know, I know — designers are good people who really Care About Things (caps intentional). That’s why a lot of us got into this business in the first place. And this isn’t a rant about free work, or how to price, or who is worthy, because the truth is that all that stuff is up to you. What I can offer you after eight years with The Black Sheep Agency, a B corp and social justice creative agency in Houston, is advice on HOW to choose those things. Here’s what we’ve learned about choosing clients when EVERYBODY is doing good work — and everybody still needs to make money. Which, let’s be real, is mostly everybody, period.

It all comes down to one thing: A cause brief

Unlike a creative brief, this is something you write for yourself about impact that interests you: The illness that deeply affected your family, the political decision you’d be willing to hit the streets with a protest sign for, your religion, your intense and abiding love for homeless cats. Each of us has a few causes we’d move mountains for, and having a cause brief ensures you’re matching your time, talent, and passion to these things — the things that feel right and make sense.

Let’s say (hypothetically, of course) that your aunt asks you to get involved with her church’s children’s charity in Guatemala because they “need more young people,” but both Guatemala AND your aunt’s church are over a thousand miles away from you. Hypothetically. If you’ve already nailed down your personal values, you can simply tell her that, while you love children’s charities and they are at the center of the things you care about, you work with one closer to home and feel like you’re most effective focusing your efforts there.


To put it in another context: None of us have unlimited resources, which means that every “yes” to something is a “no” to another opportunity. Knowing what you really, REALLY care about is the best way to maximize your impact. Otherwise we’ve got a slow bleed of five-dollar bills and half-assed, donated logos going to everything from your weird neighbor’s new save-the-bees “nonprofit” that won’t still be a thing three months from now, to your cousin Charlotte’s candle fundraiser to research a disease you’re concerned may not even be real. Know what that could’ve been? A hundred bucks to a children’s home in your own backyard that you’re truly passionate about. A website refresh donated to the annual fundraising event your family always goes to because it aligns with something you really, really care about. It doesn’t feel good to spend your time cranking out work that disappears into the void and makes no difference. And, while “stuff that feels good” isn’t necessarily a good barometer for social-justice contributions, it’s probably a clue to how effective you’re being, right?

None of us have unlimited resources, which means that every “yes” to something is a “no” to another opportunity.

So… how do you go about making this cause brief, anyway? Well, ideally, you write it down. It’s just easier to stick to it that way. But determining the cause(s) you care about may take a little more reflection. Maybe you know right off the bat that veganism is a cause you’d go to the ends of the earth for, but if you’ve never thought much about what causes make your heart beat faster, just noodle on it a bit.

Look into nonprofits in your area and see if something pops out at you. Is it veterans, or the arts, or the elderly, or all three? Can you find a way to incorporate both your love of theater AND your commitment to education? Do you care about exactly nothing else but finding foster parents for dogs? All of these are okay. In fact, they’re totally great. Defining these personal values on paper gives you a platform for choosing what to focus on and what to pass on. It’s also smart to include in your brief some additional limitations, like what kinds of discounts you’re willing to give, how many causes you’ll work with at once, and maybe a cap on hours or deliverables.

But what about AFTER you’ve found a client or beneficiary to work with? Saying yes to a donated or discounted design scenario, even for a client you’re super jazzed about, poses its own set of challenges and opportunities.

What if it’s not work I’m proud of?

This isn’t true for everyone, but a large number of people donating work are looking to either expand their skill sets or their portfolios. It’s a trade-off, of sorts. If the result of your collaboration with a good cause is something you wouldn’t admit you created to a room full of your peers, that’s most likely a problem. It’s up to you to decide if the trade-off is still worth it or not, but if it’s not, you can (and should) say something to adjust the relationship.

What if the client is difficult?

You might think “free” would net you “friendly” in return (or at least “not awful”), but that’s not always the case. When there’s little or no monetary cost for redesigning or editing something over and over, it’s not uncommon for an overly involved marketing director or a contentious board member to nitpick your work, resulting in hours and hours of extra time spent.

If it is indeed needless nitpicking and not your ego (remember, this stuff has to work for your client and their audience and not just you), then have a conversation. It’s important to understand that mismatched expectations are not a reason to quit, but a reason to talk. If there’s no adjusting the relationship to be mutually fulfilling, think about extricating yourself. Burnout isn’t good for anybody.

What if the volume of work is too much?

Sometimes the person asking you for the work may not understand what goes on behind the scenes — how long something takes, how expensive something usually is, what goes into a seemingly simple request. So something like, say, a logo, an identity suite, and a website to be completed in the first three days of your partnership may seem to them like a reasonable ask until they learn otherwise.

It’s up to you to set expectations up front for what you’re willing to work on, when, and for how much. Saying no is okay. This is YOUR donation — you wouldn’t give a good cause (even if it’s for puppies!) unlimited access to your bank account, would you? So don’t give anyone unlimited access to your work or your time if it’s not worth it to you. (And it rarely is.)

A happy resource (you) is a resource that sticks around for the long haul, and that’s when partnerships — and great causes — are at their best.


Helping designers thrive.

Jo Layne Skillman

Written by

Creative & brand director. Piemaker, occasional speaker, restorer of found objects. IG: @jo_layne_s



Helping designers thrive. A Medium publication about UX/UI design.

Jo Layne Skillman

Written by

Creative & brand director. Piemaker, occasional speaker, restorer of found objects. IG: @jo_layne_s



Helping designers thrive. A Medium publication about UX/UI design.

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