How To Politely Decline Pro-Bono Work
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How To Politely Decline Pro-Bono Work

How To Politely Decline Pro-Bono Work

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Pro-bono work is great, though there are only so many hours in a week and at the end of the day you need to pay your bills and put off on the table. As your business grows, people will start asking you for pro-bono work and those can take up a lot of your time, so how do you politely decline pro-bono work and projects as to not hurt your image, maintain your professionalism and keep your sanity?

How To Politely Limit Your Pro-Bono Work

Take a look at the image above, what do you see? I see two things. 1) I see that I need to work on my doodling skills and 2) a scale of free and warm-fuzzy feelings and putting food on the table. While it may seem harsh, we are professionals, experts and business owners are in the business of making money. That's why we have 9-5 jobs, freelance, start businesses and invest: we all need money to survive.

This post comes from several recent experiences which made us think a lot about our priorities and what we want to be seen as in the market. My wife and I enjoy pro-bono work for good causes. We've helped New Mom's Inc and Foundations Of Music with their complete re-brands and new websites, and are currently working with a great non-profit helping place cute puppies into good homes. Though, there's a limit to what we can do.

If you're interested in just the “how to” scroll down and skip these next two sections which are explanations and me ranting a little bit. 🙂

“Why limit the great pro-bono work you do? It's for a good cause and everyone benefits!” That's a great question, though:

  • Pro-bono work generally is very involved and time consuming.
  • We enjoy pro-bono work, but we also enjoy earning money.
  • We have our own bills to pay.
  • We also like to invest and save some money for the future and for our kid's futures.
  • Free time for ourselves and our lives is a very nice thing to maintain our relationship, sanity and a social life … thus we have to strike a good balance between work and pleasure.
  • Which means we have to prioritize paid work, so that we can have free time, and pro-bono work gets to fill in some gaps here and there.

Money, monies … why it all about the money?

Simple: If you can't support and help yourself how do you expect to help others?

Let's put this another way: we have to work in-order to earn money so we can have safe shelter, have food to eat and to feed our children (and pets), and pay bills which allow us to have a place to live in this modern society (electricity, water, internet, phones, insurance, fuel, ect…).

So yes: it is about the money. We need it to live. Once we have enough saved up and enough recurring income then we'll start devoting a bit more time to helping good causes. Until then though: we need to prioritize paid work.

Taken from another angle: Non-profits do not run on all charity work. They also have expenses, people to pay and therefore they also need income. Very small non-profits really don't have much of a budget, but even small and medium sized non-profits have money or are able to get the money for a project through donations. If you think I'm kidding go take a look at where the money goes at large non-profit corporations. Yes, a non-profit is just a corporation that in-and-of itself at the end of the year cannot have made any money, but it could invest, spend and pay people very well (if possible).

My point here is that they are asking for pro-bono work to cut their costs/expenses. It could be because they really don't have the money, or they want to use the money for other things…

So, how do you politely decline pro-bono work?

You've finally gotten an offer for pro-bono work. But oh noes! You've got this event coming, your cousin is getting married soon and that big project just got started … you're stretched for time, so you really need to decline but you don't want to sound like a pompous ass while doing so.

You know you have to politely decline pro-bono work but you're suck at what to say. Let me get something off the table quickly:


We need to have some tact!

Here are a few ways and phrases you can use to politely decline pro-bono work you're offered/asked to do:

“Thanks for the offer, though I'm currently all booked up for the next several month and I'm unable to accept any new projects right now.”
“It's very kind that you've thought of my for this project, though I only have 5/10/[your own number] hours per month allocated to pro-bono projects and those are already set for another project.”
“Thanks. We get a lot of pro-bono requests, so we have an application process to select which projects we're able to help for the quarter/years/half-year and for this quarter we've have our projects set. You can apply for our next round though at [this] link.”
“Mr. Smith, this sounds like a great project though I don't believe that I'm the best fit for this project. I can point you to some other who you might want to talk to if you'd like.”
“Mrs. McCharity you're project is really great, but it's not the type of work or the type of project I'm interested in working on. I know of three people who are interested in helping on your type of project; I can ask them if they want to get in contact with you. Would that be alright?”

In the first few, we take the pressure off of us and onto our “set” schedule. In the last one we're a bit more direct on our thoughts, though we're very polite, professional about it. AND best of all, we offer an alternative to them. While we can't help them directly, we at least can try to point them in the right direction. That maintains your professional and expert position all while re-directing that work to others whom may be able to help.

I'm curious if you fellow professionals get pro-bono requests and how you've handled them! Let me know in the comments.