On Design, Religion and Working for Free


on design, religion and working for free

from “Children in Manila Bay – March 27, 2011” photo by Wally Revelar, Jr.

No, this isn’t another anti-spec post, nor is the religion part meant to arouse controversy. This is about we designers using our skills for pro bono (publico) work and on working unpaid for charity, for charity’s sake. So do settle down and hear me out.

As designers new to the field, we are encouraged (and I give the same advice too) to consider taking on pro bono projects to build up our portfolios, gain experience and expertise. This is sound advice since we do have to start somewhere. But what of later, when our portfolios are more or less “complete” and we manage to get paid work constantly? Are we still just as willing to work for free as we were when starting out? Or do we do free work hoping that sooner or later, it will become paid?


Business builder?

I recently came across some advice regarding pro bono and charity work. I couldn’t help raising my eyebrows because it seemed to me that the main purpose for giving away design business for free was to gain possibly paying clients through networking and to gain publicity. Whatever happened to working for the public good for the sake of public service? Or doing charity work simply for the sake of charity? How about “…when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing…” (Matt. 6:3, NIV)?


On religion

I am a Christian but I am not religious — that term now has negative connotations. But if we talk religion, this is what it is: “Pure and genuine religion in the sight of God the Father means caring for orphans and widows in their distress and refusing to let the world corrupt you.” (James 1:27, NLT). Although indirectly, by voluntarily using our design skills for charity and non-profit work, we can actually practice this pure and genuine religion.

I had the privilege of meeting 2009 CNN Hero of the Year, Efren Peñaflorida last year.grace-oris-w-cnn-hero-efren-penaflorida Kuya Ef is a humble and selfless educator and what he said in his acceptance speech is worth repeating: “Serve, serve well, serve others above yourself and be happy to serve. As I always tell to my co-volunteers … you are the change that you dream, as I am the change that I dream, and collectively we are the change that this world needs to be.”

I hold in great respect, volunteers like Kuya Ef (Dynamic Teen Company), Subrat Goswami (Aham Bhumika) and those thousands of others who give away their time and skills for unpaid, usually unrecognized hard work. For those of us working in the comfort of our homes and desks, it shouldn’t be too hard to likewise lend our skills unselfishly and without “ulterior” motives. Why not simply do charity for charity’s sake? Or if we had to be selfish, then perhaps do it for that sense of fulfillment we get from doing good.


Making it work

Admittedly, it can be hard to volunteer our time and skills for such worthy endeavors. But we can make this all work out if we choose wisely which ones to help. Not all non-profits are really that, and not all charities are charitable. We choose those that fit our values and those with whom we can actually have a good working relationship. We also should make sure to appropriately charge our paying clients what we are worth to them. Doing this frees us of selfish motives and allows us to take on non-profit work without thinking of financial reward or business development.


Your turn

I just had to let that out. So how about you, what’s your take on designing or working pro bono? I’d love to hear your thoughts on the subject. Please share them in the comments.



  • May 10th, 2011 /

5 Comments to “On Design, Religion and Working for Free”

  1. Wendy Sheridan says:

    I have done and continue to do a lot of volunteer work. Frequently, the “fun design” work is handed to students, leaving the adults to do other more mundane and “boring” work.

    I learned the hard way about your caveat; more in the music domain than in the graphic design domain – bands are very frequently asked to play for free for benefit concerts, and only afterward you discover that the benefit is going for something less than “charitable”.

  2. Grace Oris says:

    Wendy, maybe if the boring stuff went to the students, they might be discouraged from volunteering :).

    Some people just can’t help taking advantage of others. That’s why I think it’s really up to us volunteers to choose which ones to support.

  3. John Beatty says:

    I don’t mind doing it as long as there is not a lot of “input” into the work I’m doing.

    When donating work, I think my opinion and ideas, gathered from what information the non-profit gives me should be left alone.

    It can go from being a great offering, by the designer, to a nightmare, if the “committee” in charge begins to act like they have paid a lot of money for something.

    I do not mind creative crits and suggestions. But they should be clear on their needs before I give of my time.

    I just did a logo design for my church’s youth groups and they left it totally up to me. That was kool! Now…I already want to redo it, as I have better ideas than I did 2-3 months ago when I first did it!

    But I guess that comes with almost every job! 😉

  4. Muneeb Ahmad says:

    I am a religious person (Muslim) too. I haven’t thought of working for charity for free, not because I was being selfish or anything but it completely slipped my mind! Will definitely be making a note of this type of work for future reference. Thanks Grace. 🙂

  5. Grace Oris says:

    Hi John. I think it’s a good idea to say up front that we’re doing it for free but we need to be given as much creative freedom as possible. Suggestions are welcome as long as they don’t reach the point of making us regret that we ever volunteered in the first place!

    Muneeb, glad to have inspired you to share your skills for charity. I can say it’s very fulfilling.