Volunteer Work in Web Design

Dec 17 2010 by Maria Malidaki | 32 Comments

Volunteer Work in Web Design

Volunteering is an attractive option for every web worker at some point. Whether the motivation is for self-promotion (for example, to broaden one’s network) or purely to help others in difficult times, many of us in the web industry have thought of doing it at least once.

What makes us accept or decline an invitation to volunteer our services? What is there to gain, and what do we risk? What are the criteria for deciding whether a particular non-paying design job is worth our time and effort?

Before determining whether a project is fitting for volunteer work or not, we have to see whether we’d like to be involved in it in the first place. Weighing the pros and cons and understanding the benefits and risks are essential.

Reasons to Volunteer Your Web Design Services

There are plenty of great reasons to volunteer your valuable time and effort to a cause.

Self-Promotion

Self-promotion and publicity is the primary motivation for big and small companies to volunteer for worthy causes. Projecting the image of a company that contributes to the well-being of society is a basic principle of marketing. People will favor your services if they sense that your operating plan isn’t based solely on profit.

By helping groups and organizations in need, you are showing that you would probably also place the needs of paying clients in high regard. Of course, you would demonstrate to existing clients that their satisfaction figures largely in how you measure your success, but how would prospective clients know that?

Most clients out there have certain apprehensions about service providers. Will the quality of service be sufficient for the money being paid? Will the designer rush to finish the project as quickly as possible and then walk away once the check comes?

When potential customers check your portfolio and see that you’ve volunteered for a few projects, they will feel more assured that you will listen to their needs and not the jingle of change in their pocket.

Volunteering also exposes your work to a bigger audience. You instantly become more approachable to ordinary people with modest means but big dreams. Business owners with small budgets might feel reluctant to step onto the Web. But even a low-budget presence on the web would help them, and you could be there to satisfy that need. Seeing how well you have served charitable causes, they will assume that you would be more sympathetic to their aspirations versus a company with a portfolio full of expensive, high-profile projects. And these clients might very well stick with you as they grow and scale their business.

Big companies are also impressed by volunteer projects, especially successfully executed ones. They are always on the lookout for inspirational designers who can fulfill their heavy demands, capture their brand and communicate their message to users.

Volunteering as a means for self-promotion has its negative side too, though. People might assume you’re willing to do a lot of work for free, or at a much lower price than what you’re worth. This can happen if you volunteer too much or don’t set out goals and strategies clearly in your discussions with volunteer-based clients. Explain your approach and methods so that clients don’t lead other companies to believe that they can get a golden ticket to your web design services without spending a dime.

Your volunteer clients should feel moved to explain to others that you kindly offered to support a cause that you care about, but that you are still a professional and expect fair market wages.

A Chance to Hone Your Skills

Working on a website is never a waste of time, because it is a chance to put your skills and inspiration to work. Certainly, anyone can create sample websites in their free time, but the advantage of a volunteer website is that you get real results from your work.

It’s like an academic project: you aren’t paid, but you are graded on it, and there are no better critics than users themselves.

An audience is a huge knowledge base of feedback for your work, and one more project means one more real-time evaluation of your work by real people. You could even implement the newest techniques you’ve learned to see how much they enhance the audience’s experience. Volunteering is also an excellent way for newcomers to the industry to practice their skills and gain experience in client management and self-promotion.

But don’t overdo it. While taking on extra work for practice is usually worthwhile, remember two things:

  1. Don’t overload your schedule and push back paid projects. Be realistic with your schedule. Paying clients have strict deadlines to meet. This doesn’t mean you should put volunteer work at the bottom of the list. Rather, work out flexible dates for deliverables so that you can keep pace with paid work.
  2. Don’t test out too many new ideas on a single project. Radical solutions (such as bleeding-edge layouts and scripts) could end up doing more harm than good for a website. Your goal should be the level of quality you would deliver if you were getting paid for the project.

Boosting Your Portfolio

One of my happier moments is adding a newly completed project to my portfolio. Your portfolio is the demonstration of your skill to the industry at large. Volunteering is a good way to add to a portfolio, prove your worth, get a feel for the profession and attract clients. Everyone has to start somewhere, and supporting a worthy cause is certainly a good place to begin. You expose a defined audience to your work, you get experience in real-world conditions, and you offer much-needed aid. Awesome all around.

Believe it or not, there’s a risk here, too. Setting a limit on how much work you do for free is crucial. If you’re too soft with people and want to constantly volunteer your services, you might get caught in a financial bind. While your good intentions are admirable, they won’t make ends meet.

For this reason, try to volunteer with people you know well (family and close friends) or recognized charitable groups. Both are more likely to understand your goals and understand that you won’t be doing this free forever.

Spread your wings and take on paid projects as soon as you feel you can handle their requirements (i.e. the strict deadlines, complicated requests, etc.). Filling your portfolio with good deeds is nice, but making a living from it is even nicer.

Picking Out Volunteer Projects

Let’s say you’ve decided that you can volunteer on a few projects. The next step is to figure out whether a particular project qualifies for volunteer work. Three important questions will help you make a decision.

What Is the Main Goal of the Website?

A website for an organization that supports a social cause is worthy of a designer’s efforts, especially if the organization relies entirely on public donations for survival. Still, fund-raising structure isn’t the only element to look for; many websites simply aim to inform the public about a cause.

Some worthy causes are disaster relief awareness, programs for people with special needs, animal shelters, online education for children, and cultural and scientific endeavors. Organizations whose websites have benefited from volunteer help include Med25 International, a health care organization that provides medical aid to countries in need, Hope Help and Relief Haiti by Jacob Cass, and CNIS, which does vital obstetrics work in Africa.

Med25 International

CNIS

A charitable organization exists for every worthy cause, so find something that suits your interests and ideals. Being able to relate to the cause you are supporting will boost your creativity and your desire for quality results.

What Is the Nature of the Organization?

In general, aim to volunteer at non-profit organizations. The ones that need your assistance the most are small, local or newly formed groups. You can usually get to know the team well and see whether its motivations are transparent and clear.

You might also want to volunteer for small business ventures that were hit hard by the recent economic downturn. This could be your favorite mom-and-pop store when you were growing up and that have personal sentimental value to you, local businesses that are vital to your neighborhood and community, and so forth. Before you lend a hand, make sure the owners have invested enough time, love and effort to save their business and that they are genuinely in need of aid. If you do help out, they may call on you when business get better, or at least promote you to their colleagues.

Will Others Be Volunteering as Well?

Before you commit to volunteering on a project, find out whether other web workers will be working on the project, too. You don’t want to reach the middle of a project before finding out that everyone else is getting paid except you.

Avoid organizations that are otherwise willing to pay for services but consider your contribution of low value or that take your kindness and time for granted.

Does Volunteer Work Harm the Web Design Industry?

Volunteering–done in a misguided way–could seriously harm the industry if professional web designers are working on for-profit websites that would otherwise pay for services. This would drive the price of web design work down and make the field unviable for professionals. That is why it is very important to be selective towards picking the right organizations to work with.

However, making a career solely from volunteer work is not viable either (one can do only so many projects for free before going hungry), so the industry is in no real danger of being flooded by free designs.

The important thing is to stick to the basic guidelines discussed above: know the nature of the project; favor non-profit organizations; don’t overdo it just to bulk up your portfolio; and make sure the client understands that, as much as you support the cause, your work is still costing you effort and time: two resources you normally get paid for.

Bottom line: Web designers must avoid creating misconceptions about the value of our work. To keep the industry healthy, we must establish clear boundaries between projects that can be considered for volunteer work and projects that should be paid work.

But don’t swing in the other direction either. Don’t go on a rant when taking on volunteer work and brag (or whine) about the money you could have been making by working for a paying project. You are volunteering your services because you want to, and your effort and professionalism should be in the same level as your paid projects.

Last Thoughts

Volunteering is a great way to serve your community, expose your work to a broader audience, build your portfolio, and hone your skills.

Check the parameters of the project before starting, such as the nature of the organization and the people who run it. You should feel comfortable with the team you’ll be collaborating with and the cause you’ll be supporting.

Above all, make sure the project is well conceived and targeted at the right audience: web design is your profession, not your pastime.

Finding Volunteer Work Opportunities

To get involved in volunteering, look online or around your area. If you Google "volunteer web designer", you’ll get a ton of results from groups looking for help to set up a website, and usually for a good cause.

There are also websites that focus on connecting tech workers with charitable organizations, including Grassroots.org and IT4Communities (based in the UK).

Finding Volunteer Work Opportunities

You can also look to local public schools, hospitals, community aid organizations and animal welfare groups.

You might also find web design opportunities with educational institutions that organize seminars for students, cultural events, fund-raising fairs and public awareness lectures.

Here are a few more websites to check out:

Have you ever volunteered for a project? If so, what was your experience? If not, would you be willing to give it a try?

Related Content

About the Author

Maria Malidaki loves creating and managing websites, focusing on clean and simple design primarily using semantic HTML/CSS. Planning to also work as a vet and researcher, she specializes in building the web presence of academic and scientific events. Keep in touch with her on Twitter @mthunderkit and at her professional website at thunderkit.net.

32 Comments

Andy Griffin

December 17th, 2010

I’ve got a sour taste in my mouth for volunteer web work. I’ve done 2 sites for free the last few months and in both cases, the recipient didn’t value the work because they didn’t have to sacrifice anything for it. One of them has yet to post the site (they wouldn’t give me access to the server) several months after handing it over to them, and the other threw it away because they decided they wanted to do it themselves with iWeb. Sheesh.

Keith Davis

December 17th, 2010

Hi Maria
I produce websites for local businesses, charities and clubs for a nominal fee.

It helps the various organisations and it gives me a little publicity.

At Christmas time this post is most appropriate.

Teo

December 17th, 2010

First of all nice post Maria!
I want to ask you something… Where are you from?

Crete (island of Greece)? it’s the first time i see a post from a local person (local to me) in six revisions :)

I’m proud.

Michael Tuck

December 17th, 2010

I’ve done a number of volunteer/pro bono sites for organizations, and I can add a few thoughts to this excellent article.

The biggest reason to do volunteer work is to help a worthy cause or deserving charity. All other concerns, laudable as they may be, are secondary. Naturally you want to choose one that you agree with and not an organization whose aims and beliefs differ sharply from yours.

I’ve found that working with local organizations works out very well. Not only are you supporting worthy groups in your own community, but you can meet with people face to face and get input from other stakeholders. You can also network with sponsors and donors and perhaps land paying jobs with them.

Always, always have them sign a contract. The contract I use is almost the same as the paid-client contract, with two big changes: the pro bono clause and the vague, general timeframe (I always put a bit in about “since this is a pro bono job, other jobs and responsibilities will sometimes take precedence over this one”). It’s important to get a contract both for your protection and for your pro bono client’s, especially if your client is a 501(3)c non-profit or other licensed organization.

Since I’m not a full-time designer, I spend an unusually large percentage of my design time either working pro bono or for relatively reduced fees for organizations that I personally like. I’ve found an easy way to find both pro bono and paying clients is just to search for whatever interests you, say, “animal rescue organization Santa Cruz” or whatever. You’ll find good organizations with poor or no Web presence (the last ones are often on “umbrella” sites such as Petfinder or Adopt-a-Pet, to continue with the animal rescue example, and have no individual sites, or sometimes have a Facebook page but no Web site). Drop them an email and ask if they’re interested in having you do a site for them. Focus on how a site can help them raise money and awareness for a relatively small cost (or no cost if you really, really like the organization and are so inclined).

Lastly, to my mind, while a pro bono site might not have all the bells and whistles that you’d lavish on a paying client, you should make sure that your designs are as beautiful, as functional, and as valid as anything you’d provide for a paying client.

All of this is, of course, my two cents’ worth.

Joshua

December 17th, 2010

Thanks Maria, this clears up a lot of questions I had. To be honest, I’m very interested in doing this sort of thing, but at the same time I didn’t have guidelines as to how to select jobs. I needed this! You have my gratitude.

Maria Malidaki

December 18th, 2010

Thank you all for your good comments :)

@Andy, I know :( I’ve had such experiences too, unfortunately not everything is bright on volunteering, and that’s exactly why I tried focusing so much on getting to know well who you’ll work will and how you’ll interact with them.

Of course, bad clients can be found everywhere, paid or pro-bono. And it might be quite unexpected, as well. You must always take that small risk and try to protect yourself as much as you can, without hurting your work. :)

@Keith, sounds lovely :)

@Teo, Thank you for your good words. Yes, I am from Greece, no, not from Crete, though I get that question a lot due to the surname :D Glad to see more locals read fine resources like 6Rev! We need that a lot!

@Michael, I believe your two cents are an excellent contribution to this discussion. Thank you :)

Vangelis

December 18th, 2010

Hi Maria,

A very nice article.
Well written with good guidelines and very informative.
Personally, I haven’t volunteered for a project yet, but I have decided to give it a try.
So, this article is very helpful to me!

Thanks for the article!

Maria Malidaki

December 18th, 2010

@Joshua @ Vangelis, glad you found it useful guys! Let us know your thoughts when you give volunteering a try. :)

S. Antonio

December 18th, 2010

Oustanding article! Volunteer/non-profit work is an integral area of my business as well as my spiritual well being. However, not only can it be both “good karma” and good exposure, but it can also be good tax strategy. If my company ever hits a slow period, rather than have my employees work on make-work projects, I have them choose a non-profit and work on implementing that non-profit’s site. I get the exposure, karma, happy/fulfilled employees, and a nice tax deduction for donated services.

Jacqueline Beaudoin

December 20th, 2010

Ok I am jumping in here from the organizations side with a couple of questions.

I am in the middle of relaunching what is/will be an international organization that deals with animal rescue. I would like to put together a creative team to help with the first project and for this I need
a new web page, a new logo, pr and marketing personnel.

Now since we are looking for volunteers would it be worth while for someone with the talent/skills needed to exchange their services for recognition of their efforts on the web site and in our quarterly newsletter to be launched in 2011?

If anyone would like to give me personal feedback or has any interest in being part of the creative team that is being built please feel free to contact me at [email removed for privacy]

everlearner

December 20th, 2010

Thanks Maria,
Your guidelines about volunteering are very informative. I think we can use your suggestions in other area of volunteering other than web development.

@Michael
Thanks for your added on information. I thought volunteer work no need to contract. But your comment show the right way to do.

@Andy
Some people couldn’t value if they got something valuable for free. They may even think – an expensive thing is valuable. The result is they lost all the valuable volunteers. Don’t bother your volunteering spirit with those people.

Cindy

December 21st, 2010

Great article! A good friend of mine (who also happens to be a developer) and I took on some pro-bono work for an upcoming convention. It was fantastic working with them and they were so amazed. The pro-bono work we did was for Geek Girl Con, http://www.geekgirlcon.com

:)

Bradley

December 22nd, 2010

I have completed a volunteer project for a local non-profit group that prepares children for learning to read.

It was very stressful. I didn’t do my homework properly beforehand. The person in charge wanted me to work as a portion of a “marketing” committee. However, I ended up doing 100% of the work. The other people were just idea people, and one individual was quick to point out that he thought my turn around wasn’t quick enough.

Once the project was completed, the director of the organization was somehow under the impression that I was her on-call web and tech person.

I think they were overall happy with the work, but I will never work for them again. On top of that I have shied away from pursuing other freeby work.

Pick your charity cases carefully!

Maria Malidaki

December 22nd, 2010

Awesome work Cindy! :)

Milan

December 25th, 2010

Hello,

We are a charity based in Nepal, and currently looking for volunteer who can help us either redesign / further development of our website. Also, we expect some help from volunteers in Search Engine Optimization (SEO)as well. If anyone is willing to contribute their time as volunteer and seeking opportunities please contact us at :vcap.nepal@gmail.com for further information.

Thank you!

Flick

December 26th, 2010

Thank you for this article :) It’s really nice to have a reference to go back to about some of the dos and don’ts, especially the links to the websites dedicated to connecting the two uh… groups.
I recently ‘volunteered’ to work on a website and learnt so much I really feel like doing it again.
Special thanks to Michael Tuck and Bradley for their feedback too.

George Carter

December 27th, 2010

Great post Maria. I have done a couple of sites for Grassroots.org

@Andy Griffin:
I’ve had similar experiences which led me to believe “It doesn’t ‘pay’ to volunteer” :)

I found because there was no contractual commitment (no financial or legal risks)between me and some clients, they were slow to respond to my emails or didn’t respond at all, after expending several hours on projects. But don’t give up; there are many organizations that will surely appreciate your help, you just haven’t found the right match yet.

My best experience was preparing this site: http://www.mariannefoundation.org/index.html
Though is still a work in progress,
1. this was a cause I was personally interested in,
2. the expectations did not exceed my skill level, and
3. the people were nice to work with.

@Michael Tuck:
I have never used a pro bono contract and would like to learn more. Where can I get info about such contracts? Do you find some non-profits uneasy about signing such a contact?

Hope to read more from you Maria.

Happy New Year!
George

Doug

December 27th, 2010

Woww..what an article Maria. Thanks for the information and advice. I am not a developer or designer but I needed this information since I have been thinking of securing the service of volunteer web developers/designers for my start-up. Essentially, the website is almost complete but I will be needing some further development and help but there is no way I can afford to hire developers right now; I outsourced the development and my developers have taken forever to complete it (as well as drain me). The website is a funding platform that we hope will raise money for various ideas and projects that impact the world (esp. charities and small community projects alike).

Now my question. Do you think it’s a good idea to secure the services of a volunteer developer or just hire someone on a part-time/full-time basis? We really will not profit until maybe a year or two if all goes well. Also how do I know or how do I pick the right developer for furthering the development and maintenance of the website for now?

Doug

December 27th, 2010

Also if any developer is out there and would like to help or get on board please email me and lets see what we can do together. This endeavor purely surfaced out of good will and we hope to impact the world in the smallest way possible.

Gaurav Mishra

December 28th, 2010

It was untouched to that extent( Volunteering )
bookmarked.

Thanks for sharing!

Austin Knight

December 28th, 2010

Just finished my first volunteer web design/development project for a Haiti adoption agency, turned out to be my best site yet :)

Colleen

February 6th, 2011

I designed a web site for a not for profit youth organization. I was also a volunteer on their board. Now that I am leaving the organization do I have any rights on how they can use my site now that I will no longer be volunteering my services? Who owns the design?

Herm

March 14th, 2011

There’s no money in freelance web design

Daquan Wright

May 26th, 2011

Make sure in your contract you put that they agree to let it be in your portfolio!

Go all out and make something nice. Getting that item in your portfolio and doing something for a cause produces measurable results, which is what businesses care about.

Caleb Wakhungu

June 4th, 2011

Hello Maria,
Am so glad to hear about your work. I tried to build this website myself and am looking for a volunteer to help me do the editing to make it more professional. I will appreciate if there is any person willing to help me out.

Be Blessed.

blanche

August 27th, 2011

Hi,
my name is blanche. I am working in the accounting firm at the moment.we are very small firm in north london, and we are looking for somebody as volunteer to help us to design our website, and see how to improve it. In return we’ll paid for your travel expenses.

Thank you very much in advance for anyone who want to give a bit of it time to help us.

James A. Lehman

September 7th, 2011

I own the website: inventive-internet.com which is the only
website of its kind in the world, having the only interact-
ive methods in the world, and the only patents of their
kind in the world (obtained pro bono as the patent firms
consider my art to be important) and I need some simple
changes and additions to the site, but am a 72 year pauper. So, please help me to get the work done because the site will create jobs through innovation.

Courtney

October 4th, 2011

We would be very appreciative of any volunteer assistance on our new website for The Autism Research Foundation. We’ve recently begun a lot of exciting outreach programs and are gathering exciting information we’d like to present effectively. We just need a clean and attractive design. Thanks so much!

Jerry

October 10th, 2011

looking for someone to help me build a networking site… for mass cause. hoping to find that someone who has a big heart in helping the less fortunate once… for any interested person, pls contact me through: [EMAIL REMOVED FOR PRIVACY]

thank you!!!

JJones

November 12th, 2011

Hello to all, especially any student designers that are willing to collaborate on a project with mass potential exposure. I am currently pursuing my JD/Masters in Dispute Resolution. For my practicum project, I proposed an idea to my director with the hope he will approve it. Now, per chance, he should not allow me to pursue this idea, I am going to go ahead with it anyway.

While I do not want to share with the public my project just yet, there is an awesome amazing opportunity for a volunteer (sorry..as I said…I am a student getting two degrees…loans only cover so much) to work on a project that I believe will have an impact on MMORPG’s. I am really appreciative of any help I can get, which is why I am reaching out to all communities, so we can hit the ground running. I promise that if you are to help me, I am willing to do whatever is necessary to make sure your work is viewed by a large number of people.

Who knows? Maybe this project will become profitable after I am done with my practicum project. Then I am more than willing to compensate you, as this is only fair. I have already started to make contacts with other gamers, who have offered to help.

I do not know much (rather anything) about website design, but I already have a domain name and web hosting, which in my ignorant view of things is necessary. (?) While beggers cannot be choosers, I prefer someone that has passion for MMORPG’s and a sincere willingness to collaborate on a process that could potentially effect a large number of serious gamers.

If this project is successful, I will also include your name and information on all future works I publish (as long as our relationship continues). While I do not want to *promise* too much, I am completely authentic when I say I will do everything in my power to get your name out there. Think about it…exposure to my content creates exposure to your work. Of course I am going to do everything possible to get people to look at both. :-)

So what do you think? Are you down? I have vent if you want to discuss this further. At that time, I can tell you about the project, my research, and my aspirations for our work together. MmmmK…so I have written a lot in the attempts to persuade you. You might be able to pick up on my tone that I am super excited about having the opportunity to work with you! Thanks!
<3
J.J.

shola

November 19th, 2011

I am glad to have come across this site. Our charity organization serves vulnerable African population from and in 34 Africa nations. We are creating a new website to connect our mission with the public and donors. We are asking volunteer web developers to help us design an interactive site. Our organization and people we serve are very appreciative of every hour of free service provided. We ask you to please help. We can be reached @ africancenter@sbcglobal.net

Thank you.

Proudly Liberian

March 6th, 2013

For the past years, we have gotten lot of domain names of which we need to develop interactive sites but we don’t have the money design the kindly of website we need.
At the moment we are looking for a volunteer to help us design http://www.iamliberia.org, we need to site to be as http://www.iamkenyan.or.ke.
Is there a way that you can help us develop this interactive website?
Pls contact us at [Email removed for privacy]
Hope to hear from you.

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