Promote your business with pro bono design work

Drawing by Robert MacMillan

I love graphic design so much that if I could, I would do it for free. Just to see the smiling faces of my clients is payment enough. Well, that might be stretching it a little bit, but giving back to my community and to those who have helped me along the way is important to me. But I never really realized how beneficial giving back could be for my business and me. Let me tell you a little story.hands

When I first moved to Columbus, Ohio (where I knew no one) with the bright idea to take my then part-time graphic design business full time (with no clientele), I used to sit around staring at the ceiling thinking about what a big mistake I made to even come here. No one was calling and I couldn’t blame them. No one knew I was here! But then an idea hit me. Since I was sitting at home anyway, I might as well volunteer somewhere and be a help to someone in need.

So I started out at the Salvation Army stocking the food pantry. I also did administrative work at a struggling counseling center. Then one day while browsing the web, I found a group that was starting a street paper whose purpose was educating the city about the homeless and their issues. The paper was to be sold by homeless vendors and all proceeds would go to those vendors. So I figured, why not, I wasn’t doing anything anyway.

Turns out, the group only had an idea but no drafts, no design direction and, most importantly, no money. Just a couple of pieces of folded construction paper to show me where they wanted the articles to go. So, with a little help from me, the paper was born from the ground up with me as the creative director. Today, Street Speech has sold more than 10,000 copies since its birth in March 2008, and now has to increase their print circulation to keep up with the demand.

Not only am I able to say “I designed this entire newspaper” (which is an incredible portfolio booster), but thousands of people now see my work every month. I wouldn’t be able to buy that type of advertising! I also realized that if the main newspaper in town hired me, I would have started off as a gopher making people coffee and bringing them their mail. It would have taken a while before I would have been given the responsibility to actually work on updating the paper let alone incorporating my own creative direction. But because I volunteered, doors were open to me that never would have been before.

So the next time your business is a little slow (or even if it’s not) find out where you can use your design services to help a nonprofit organization, a church or a struggling business. You may be surprised how you’ll get your reward. Most businesses allow you to place your name or logo on their advertisement for free if you volunteered. You could even be listed as a sponsor, or get to swap products/services from them in exchange for design work (everybody’s gotta eat right?). You never know until you give it a shot.

Here are some great websites to find volunteer work:

Do you have story about how volunteering helped your business? Share it in the comments.