Arkitrek Guide to Working for Free

by | March 22nd, 2014 | Failures, Social Enterprise | No Comments

Would you like to know how to piss off all your clients, lower the esteem of your company and ensure that your staff don’t stick around? Try working for free. Working for free can bite you on the bum, but like many animals with sharp teeth it can also give you a warm fluffy feeling, new friends, loyalty and inspiration. Here’s our guide to avoiding the teeth, learned painfully.

Your motives for working for free may include: for kudos, to attract and retain staff, to build your portfolio and to create business opportunities. If you’re retired or have an alternative source of income, you may have other motivations, but we’re not and don’t, so won’t deal with those motives.

The most obvious way for free work to backfire is that others will expect you to work for free too. Everyone loves a discount and hates it if someone else got a discount when they didn’t. Trying to define who is eligible to receive free work, based on worthiness, is only going to get you into more trouble.

The next biggy, more like a poison barb, is that you may not only be doing yourself a disservice by working for free. “We sometimes forget that work is never performed in a vacuum; it is always done within an existing economic system upon which some people depend” points out Joe O’Connell of Creative Machines. Your free work could take away someone else’s supper.

One way to muffle the backfire would be not to tell anyone that you’re working for free, but if you can’t brag about your selfless devotion to a worthy cause how do you claim the kudos? In reality, we’ve found that kudos might not come to you anyway. If you value your work at zero or very little, there is a real risk that the person you’re working for will also value your work at zero or very little.

The opposite can also be true. “The best decision we ever made was to raise our prices” Norm van’t Hoff of Sarinbuana Eco Lodge told me once, Norm explained that just raising their prices radically changed how people valued their services. They went from a fringe hippy hangout to luxury boutique eco-resort, almost overnight.

Finally, you might find that your staff might lose interest once that magnificent project for the public good, which you only got because you agreed to work for free, has finished and the real work begins.

These are the pitfalls of pro-bono work and we have experienced all of them. Unfortunately, we didn’t find out about an initiative by Public Architecture called The One Percent until all our mistakes had been made. In their Pro Bono Design Handbook for Designers Public Architecture explain how pro-bono work ‘enhances the profession’s engagement with the under-resourced communities most in need of the benefits of design’. They go on to codify why and how you should work for free. Read it, it will save me some writing.

The secrets of how to work for free, effectively, all lie in our mistakes that I described above.

1. Everyone else will want us to work for free.

We approach this issue, not by defining who gets pro-bono work, but what pro-bono work is available. Having said that, we do define who does not get pro-bono work. Pro Bono means ‘for the public good’ so we won’t work pro-bono for private clients or privately owned companies.

In 2013 Arkitrek contributed 28% of our total fee income in pro-bono services. This is not a sustainable level for us. The One Percent works on a contribution of at least 1%, obviously. Whatever the contribution level is, potential beneficiaries must know that they’re competing for a limited pot.

We have also found that time can be a handy excluder: You want fast? You pay. You want pro-bono? Here is our timeline.

2. Pro-bono values our work, and therefore other people’s similar work, at zero or very little.

Pro-bono work has exactly the same value, and liability, as paying work, we just don’t charge for it. This is the golden rule that we learned from Public Architecture: Always invoice for the value of your work, even if the ‘amount due after pro-bono contribution’ is zero.

Take every opportunity to impress upon your pro-bono client and their partners, exactly how much your service is worth. In this way you can actually increase awareness in the market of the value of your services. You don’t get this opportunity with paying clients because they might not appreciate you running around telling everyone how much they are paying you.

3. My staff are only interested in the pro-bono projects.

We allow student volunteers to lead many of our pro-bono projects and our paid staff support them. The Taproot Foundation has written a report on the emerging trend for Pro-bono in American professional schools in which they note that “The primary driver of these trends has been the demand among students for socially conscious careers.”

Arkitrek has found this to be true. Every single Malaysian who has worked with us has been exceptionally talented and they were all motivated to work for us by the ethics of our company. Attracting and retaining talent is one of the greatest reasons for design companies to do pro-bono work.

Arkitrek has taken this principle to the next level by developing a training programme that has such high value for design students that they’re prepared to pay to participate in our pro-bono projects.

Remember how this article started with the ‘pro-bono as a sharp toothed fluffy animal’ metaphor? In British culture there is a saying: ‘hair of the dog that bit you’. This means that you can fix a problem by applying a small quantity of the causative agent: usually the ingestion of alcohol to cure a hangover. We’ve applied hair of the dog to our pro-bono problems and we’re now getting on just fine. We won’t be over-indulging in pro-bono work in future but it will certainly always be a part of our company ethos.

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