The problem with pro-bono work isn’t the lack of pay

Occasionally, I will agree to work with an author pro-bono (that is, for no charge). I do this when all of the following are true:

  • I think it is a very worthwhile project that needs to get out into the world.
  • In my assessment, the client is unable to pay more than a token amount.
  • I have space in my schedule.

(I don’t have space in my schedule for the foreseeable future, so I’m not taking on any pro-bono work at the moment. Please don’t ask.)

Looking back, nearly all of my past pro-bono projects have stalled or failed. And they were getting thousands of dollars worth of my most valuable work for free! Why weren’t these clients going ahead at warp speed?

Why pro-bono projects stall

I put in the same level and quality of work on pro-bono projects as I do with the rest of my clients. I operate at only one quality level, and that’s as full and creative as it can be.

The projects are neither more nor less complex than other projects.

These authors’ books are promising and their concepts are exciting. I’d love to see them published. That’s what attracted me in the first place.

So why do they stall?

Because the clients aren’t committed.

An author who has put thousands of dollars into a project, including my fees, is a lot less likely to give up. The pro-bono clients, like all authors, have other priorities. But unlike those other authors, they may feel more like letting go of a dream they haven’t paid money for is a choice they can live with.

Or they can imagine that they will come back to the project at some point, and that makes them feel better.

Paid projects sometimes stall, too. But I’d guess that 90% of the time, my paid clients and I complete our work. By contrast, my pro-bono projects rarely get to the finish line.

There have been two exceptions. In both cases, I edited a book for free, and the author subsequently published the book (and both books were quite good).

I think the difference was that in those cases, I was clearing a single obstacle out of the way. The author had already completed a manuscript and had a publisher lined up. They just needed an editor to help them go from complete book manuscript to publisher-ready manuscript.

But the other pro-bono projects — idea development, proposal development, chapter editing, coaching — all stalled before publication.

What this means for me . . . and for you

I’ve learned my lesson. For the most part, from here on out, I won’t be taking on more pro-bono projects, because I’m not interested in wasting time on books that never get published. I might make exceptions for one-shot-and-it’s-done type projects, like idea development sessions or book editing — but only if time opens up in my schedule.

If you’re working with an editor or other freelancer and need help on a pro-bono basis, this means you have work to do. You already know you need to show that you have a worthy project and and can’t pay. But I think you also need to somehow demonstrate a commitment to finish the project.

Because nobody wants to waste their time on projects that never see the light of day.

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  1. This is wise, Josh, thanks for sharing those thoughts. Payment adds commitment. Working with my book coaching clients on a monthly (rather than project) basis, also incentivizes them to commit to working quickly.

  2. Brings to mind this idea I once heard about working with clients: “When they’re paying, they’re paying attention.”