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‘Doing good’ is alluring — a great elixir to induce happy feelings like a warm embrace from a Grandma smelling of cookies. But what does ‘doing good’ mean to design studios? Is doing good a casual activity or a company pursuit?


Santa gave equally, even to capitalists

During this Christmas season of remembering the charity and love we have all received, it’s a moment to celebrate the good in all and that both non-profit and for-profit groups do good. The fact is for-profit companies can sometimes sell products that benefit people, they provide incomes and in most cases, many fund the non-profits openbox9 works with. So its not that we think some clients are bad and some are good, we just choose to become better and better at helping non-profits at their unique business.

I can understand though the emotional draw to design for social-good non-profits – it does feel rewarding. It’s understanding why many designers offer pro-bono work. The problem with pro-bono work is that some design firms see it as charity and not business as usual. Meaning, it makes them feel good that they are doing it but after the “aren’t we special” moment fades, pro-bono projects become competing for attention projects!

What?! It came with relish

Sometimes… sometimes designers feel their pro-bono services can be sub-par. Its like a quality steakhouse offering a free meal to those in need… sounds wonderfully charitable. You can imagine the anticipation from the empty-stomach folks lining up outside the restaurant. The chef and staff mean well but when they serve luke-warm hotdogs instead of steaks, no one is satisfied… I believe the under-delivering comes from a misunderstanding of charity. Unfortunately folks of all professions, sometimes feel charity can be less in quality… less in time… and less in love than their normal service.

…does that mean they feel bad about their paying clients?

A band of creatives recently offered a pro-bono program to award 5 non-profits with free services. I applaud that – I wish more would consider that. But what struck me odd was how much the organization felt great about themselves… does that mean they feel bad about their paying clients? Then there was their laundry list of “terms and conditions” that basically reads ‘we work when we can and you will not be a pain to work with or we will “remove an organization from the Program at any time for any reason”’. I doubt they talk to paying clients that way… so what was the goal of their program – to deliver hot dogs?

The intriguing part about pro-bono work is that it normally takes a negative situation to motivate a pro-bono’er. The work they are accustomed to doing is unsatisfying, the clients they serve are ‘evil’ and they need some good feelings. While this negative motive can benefit the recipient of free work, it’s my opinion that the partnership always sours when they realize that a good-cause can’t cure their poor view on serving.

How to know if your pro-bono’er is right for you?

  1. They might have sought you out for pro-bono work
  2. They are aware and passionate about your cause
  3. They have been volunteering, donating or following your organization
  4. They don’t dictate the terms of pro-bono work
  5. You are not directed to talk to their intern about the project

Inward reflection

I have been thinking about the phrase ‘doing good’ and what it means for openbox9. How can we strengthen our mission or change areas where we can’t see our arrogant pomposity. We strive to provide creative services to those organizations trying to improve the world… does that make us ‘good’ or special? No, and how tragic if we give that impression.

Michael Schafer
Michael has spent the past 25 years applying his experience and superpowers to further the missions of social-good organizations, and has no plans to stop.