Why Designers Should Do Volunteer Projects

As designers, it isn’t often that we get to do something good for the community with our talents. Taking on one charity project a year doesn’t have to eat up a lot of time and it can benefit you in many ways, aside from that warm and fuzzy feeling you get from helping others. Even if you are a Grinch who doesn’t want to help anyone, I’m still going to convince you to work for free because not only does it help the less fortunate, there are a ton of benefits for you as well.

It is funny. When we were design students we had all the creative freedom we wanted, to put together a portfolio of factitious products and design mockups. To redesign our favorite websites and try out different styles as we chose. But once we hit the job world a lot of that freedom and creativity disappeared. It was replaced with clients with specific tastes, budgets and deadlines. The really juicy, creative project come few and far between. And when they do there might not be a big enough budget for you to really take your time and get creative the way you want.

SEE ALSO: 10 Great Places to Sell Your Web Design Work

It may be a case of the grass is always greener but students want to do client work and professionals want to do creative work. For the seasoned designer, doing a project for a charity or non-profit gives the perfect opportunity to let your creativity loose.

Most charities and non-profits have little or no money to spend on design work. Many times they try to do it on their own. So when you contact them and offer your services, for free, they are going to be way more inclined to let you create the design you want to make. And of course you get to choose who to work for, not the other way around. So find a cause you feel really passionate about or maybe there is a really fun charity event that happens in your community. Either way, find a project and get designing.

Exposure

Exposure

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You can fight to get your portfolio seen the hard way or you can put your work out in front of people the easy way. Charities and non-profits get tons of exposure. They are constantly in need of funds so there are lots of events and lots of advertising. Doing design for them puts your work out in front of a lot of eyeballs. If you want to do work in the community where you live there is really no better way to put yourself out there than by doing design for the bigger non-profits in the area.

One example is animal shelters. Their websites get tons of traffic from people looking for lost pets or wanting to get a pet.

Launch Your Freelance Career

Maybe you are tired of working for the man. Doing a volunteer project for a non-profit or charity is an excellent way to test the waters and get experience working on your own. You can treat it exactly like a paid gig with a design proposal, client meetings, a contract, deadlines, everything. Just with a client that is a whole lot easier to deal with.

Being a successful freelancer is all about being able to demonstrate your expertise. But if you haven’t spent a lot of time giving your pitch, talking clients out of a bad design choices, and explaining your design process, you are going to be in for a rough time. A volunteer project is a great way to practice without the fear of losing income. The biggest weakness of a freelancer who is just making enough money to survive is, they cave to the clients every wish, because they cannot afford to do otherwise. A volunteer project has none of the pressure so you should feel confident letting the client know exactly what needs to be done. With that confidence you will be setting yourself up for a much easier go at working for yourself.

Not only is the experience invaluable but you should get a nice testimonial from them and possibly some name-drops, which could lead to paid gigs.

Recharge Your Design Battery

Recharge Your Design Battery

Is there some type of design that you have been just itching to do but you know your clients would never go for it? These kinds of projects are the perfect opportunity to experiment with something new. A fundraising event promotional page might be a great place to try out a parallax design. Or maybe you never get a chance to use your illustration skills, so design a poster using your illustrations.

The point is, volunteer work is the perfect way to recharge and get your creative juices flowing again. It is pretty hard for people to turn down free and really, anything you come up with they should be happy with, because it is better than the nothing they had before.

Build Your Network

Do some design work for a charity event and guess what, you’ll probably be a guest at that event. Charity events are great places to rub elbows with business owners in your community. And you don’t have to try and sell yourself because you have a mutual interest with the people there. Just talk about the cause and mention that you helped by doing the design.

Client Work With Less Hassle

With volunteer work you can choose the client and most times set the timeline for the project. This gives you flexibility and allows for enough time to be as creative as you want to be. If you are tired of being told by clients what to do even though you are the design expert, you won’t have to take it on this project. Finding a charity or non-profit client who will be happy with whatever design you come up with is easier than you think.

Fill Portfolio Gaps

Fill Portfolio Gaps

Is there a certain style or type of work missing from your portfolio? Perfect time to do a volunteer project. Find an organization that needs that type of project done or just mention it to one you would like to do work for and see if they agree. Most likely they will.

Produce Work You Can Be Proud Of

Sometimes we just don’t get the chance to make the quality of work that we know we are capable of. It could be the client’s dog turd logo that ruins every project. It could be their back-seat designing. Or maybe the clients you have pay well but just aren’t very glamorous (like plumbers, lawyers, bail bondsman). Whatever the reason a volunteer project allows you to do the quality of work you want to do. If you don’t like their logo, design a new one. Don’t give them the option of having an opinion, just hand off the design when complete.

Conclusion

By doing a volunteer project or two you get exposure, networking opportunities, and a chance to grow as a designer. The monetary reward isn’t there but there are plenty of other rewards that can be just as valuable. So go find a cause you are passionate about and get involved. Or if you want to do it strictly for personal gain, find a local non-profit that will get you noticed. Either way, a volunteer project should be on your 2012 to-do list.

Tyler Herman

Tyler Herman is a web designer and blogger at Couchable. You can follow Tyler on Twitter at @couchable.

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8 Comments
  1. Justin Jan 9, 2:53 pm

    Great post, and definitely a must read for everyone, design students through to dept. heads at large multinationals. A Design Company I get a lot of contract work from, is actually mandated in their policy to do one Pro Bono Non-Profit project a year. I think it is a great way to help build your portfolio, help the human collective, and it may seem selfish, but make yourself and those you work with feel good. Doing something for others when you don’t have to is an amazing feeling!
    Justin

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  2. emily Jan 9, 3:10 pm

    Can anyone suggest any good websites that link you up to this sort of work? I know of crowd sourcing sites, but anything more personal?

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  3. Greg Jan 9, 4:20 pm

    Great Idea,

    I looked into this earlier. Would love to see a site dedicated to finding charities in need of design work.
    So you could pick your cause.

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  4. Homer Jan 9, 6:42 pm

    Great post. I started working with various non-profit orgs about 2 yrs ago. It started out as a side project for me and has been going good. All the projects have been word of mouth thus far but things starting to grow a bit more. This year I’m setting up Design Donation as a 503c and making other moves to reach more 503c’s that need help.

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  5. JC Jan 9, 9:00 pm

    Catchafire matches professionals who want to give their skills with nonprofits and social enterprises that need their help. http://www.catchafire.org/

    Check them out…

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  6. Architect Mike Jan 12, 8:10 am

    These are all great reasons. As long as the “client” getting the donated work isn’t overbearing and demanding I’m all for it.

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  7. Sandy Rowley Jan 24, 6:18 am

    This is how I won two Webby Awards.

    The first web design project I donated was for a non profit out of Ethiopia. I felt an instant connection with the group. They gave me the freedom to design what was in my heart. It paid off big for both of us.

    The second Webby Award winning design was for a documentary called The Mission is Possible. This opened doors to the record industry as most of the cast were all celebrities.

    I was thrilled to of won two honorary Webby Awards the same year that Prince and Al Gore won one. All because I loved the mission of both non profits and designed from my heart.

    Sandy Rowley
    Megastar Networks

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