Plank makes sure to carve out a part of our time for pro-bono work. We feel it’s important for any company that makes a buck to lend a hand to the non-profit sector.
The Pros and Cons of Pro Bono
There are cheerleaders and detractors for pro-bono work. The cheerleaders say that it creates new relationships, let’s you flex your creative muscle beyond what you usually do, and that it just feels good to give back. There’s even a growing movement to adopt a business model that has you giving away half your work for free.
Others argue that giving work away for nothing devalues it and creates a dependency. That removing payment from the relationships skews expectations and commitments. Sam Applebee and Jonty Sharples both go into great detail about why pro-bono work “sucks” for everyone. Of course, they both admit it’s not going to go anywhere and do offer constructive advice on how to make it better.
We definitely fall into the cheerleader camp. We get that there can be pitfalls to doing pro-bono, but we also think they can generally be mitigated by being honest about expectations - something that’s vital to any successful relationship.
Our approach has changed a bit over the years, as we try to find the best way to deliver value to our partner organization without de-valuing or sacrificing our regular client work.
For quite a while, we dedicated ourselves to a single pro-bono partner for full design projects. Our first was Highlands Hope. The relationship began in 2005 when we built them a website - our first project using WordPress! We kept in touch, and took on the rebuild in 2013 when it was time for a refreshed look.
In 2010, we put out a general call for submissions for a new partner that resulted in our performing a total rebrand and website redesign for local charity, Head and Hands. In 2015, we offered our services as an in-kind sponsorship to the Montreal Baseball Project.
The Hack Day
In 2016, we decided to try a “Hack Day” format. We put out a call for a problem we could solve in just one day. The first one was very successful, resulting in a prototype for a live translation app for Repercussion Theatre’s Shakespeare in the Park, that we’re now developing further.
The second one, an accessibility map of Montreal for Centre Philou, didn’t end up being immediately usable, but the organization was able to walk away with the code base to develop it further with the help of a volunteer or with some targeted funding.
Testing risky ideas
What we liked about those Hack Days was the idea of directing our pro-bono work towards testing solutions to a specific problem, to develop a proof of concept or rough prototype to see if an idea is worth putting some money into - whether it’s us or someone else who brings the work further.
Let’s face it, in this day and age, most organizations understand that a website is a necessity and a baseline expense. We’d rather offer our pro-bono hours for something that might be a bit more of a risk to an organization to invest in.
We also avoid devaluing our bread and butter work. It’s clear at the start that the outcome is an unknown - we might not solve the problem at hand. But we’ll share our results and our insights. We’re not just doing our regular work for no charge.
There was one problem with the Hack Day format. As fun as it is to get the whole team working on the same project for a marathon kind of a day, it limits what you’re able to get done. Depending on the project, there's not always an interesting role for each team member for the full day. We were also getting surprisingly few submissions! It’s understandable that an organization would doubt they’d get much value out of something we only spent a day making.
Which brings us to the Hack Sprint. Instead of a one-day marathon, we'll spread the work over a one or two week period, choosing the right balance of team members for the project. We think the (just a bit) slower pace will mean we’ll be able to think about the problem more deeply, and come up with more considered solutions. We'll still be time-bound to keep focussed and engaged.
We’re taking applications for our first Hack Sprint that will take place this fall. If you’re a non-profit or you have an altruistic idea that needs testing, we’d like to hear from you!