Even for a charity there’s no such thing as a free lunch

At least, not without some reciprocity.

I love people who do pro bono work. They offer their skills free of charge for something they believe in. They will inherit the earth.

My younger son Charlie, who’s just completed his training as a human rights lawyer, used to work pro bono on Fridays for the charity Reprieve on ‘death row’ cases and at weekends for people who need legal aid. He did this gladly, for quite a while, as it helped him learn his trade. He did it for good causes because he figured they’d need and value his services more than would, say, a big corporate client or its highly paid legal firm. He not only learned from this, he believed it was well worth doing too.

In my time I’ve worked with great agencies and individuals all of whom give the same great service; and, at times, do it pro bono. Usually, they worked unpaid for a reason. Sometimes it’s commercial, even though no money changes hands – it looks good in their client portfolio, it helps open doors, it smoothes a passage. Sometimes they do it because in their already busy lives they really care passionately enough about some cause to work for it for a while for no pay.

Great people, doing a great thing. Heck, I’ve even been known to work pro bono myself, from time to time.  So, why do so many requests from charities for free work get right up my nose? 

You know the kind of thing – see opposite, based on a recent real example except only that the name and some minor details have been changed. I get emails like this far too often. My response is always the same.

On the left: a simple request that ignores the universal power of reciprocity. And on the right: the inevitable pained reply that follows.






Such requests depress me simply because in the proposed arrangement there is not even a hint of mutual, reciprocal benefit, but an assumption that I’ll want to do it all the same. So many people in not-for-profit organisations seem unaware of, far less appreciative of, the paramount importance in this kind of deal of reciprocity, of getting people to want to do something for you because it chimes with their needs and desires too; because it’s in their interests to do it, even if it only satisfies their most basic charitable drive. 

Dr Robert Cialdini describes the impulses behind these decisions in his direction-changer of a book from the mid 1980s, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion.  As these pro bono requests fail to offer reciprocity or even to satisfy any of Cialdini’s five other key aspects of asking, they are usually doomed to failure. There’s a good lesson in this, for fundraisers and for clients.

Even when I had a large and prosperous agency behind me I was reluctant to accede to such requests. To put it simply, pro bono or not, someone has to pay for my time and expertise. And if it isn’t the organisation that’s benefiting from them then the cost, inevitably, is being passed on to someone else up or down the line. I worry that it’s the paying clients of those that regularly do pro bono work who are really paying for it, through higher-than-they-should-be fees.

Robert Cialdini and his seminal book

How I should reply to such a request now is also shown opposite.

Writing a reply like this makes me feel bad. It probably makes the recipient feel bad. But because it lacks reciprocity the original request is bad fundraising. Even if there were some recognition of what the request might involve for me I might still decline. But neither the writer nor I would need to feel bad about it.

Recently at Clayton Burnett we were asked to address the trustees of a UK top 20 charity, to persuade them to change their ways. Just to attend the event would have taken the best part of a day, with at least three days on top of that to get the brief and do the preparation. As a gesture for the charity we offered to do it at a reduced rate for a single day. This was met with some surprise and the response, ‘Oh, but this is governance, and we’ve no budget for that. We weren’t thinking of paying you.’

Honestly, no budget for governance. No wonder they’re badly led. Really, life is too short to work for anyone who thinks like that. Not only wouldn’t I work for them, I wouldn’t consider trusting them with a donation. Unless we expunge such attitudes our sector will never progress. With hindsight, what we should have said was, ‘OK, no budget. Fine, then we’ll work for whatever the CEO will be paid for attending that board meeting – he can pay us from his earnings for the day.’

When as a youngster I worked in publishing the best advice I was ever given was, never assume. Our old production director had these two words printed large and stuck on the office wall. If it were legal he would have had them tattooed on our foreheads. But their observance saved much embarrassment and heartache, plus many mistakes.

It’s sound advice not just for editors but for anyone. 

In similar spirit I’d like now to offer a two-word exhortation to charities in the hope they might avoid all that and much injustice too. Never presume. Or put another way, please don’t ask for something, particularly a really major gift, unless you can justify the gift not just in terms of what it means to you, but in terms of what it can give, to the donor.

I still work pro bono, most of my time. Now along has come a new concept, low bono, which suits people who, like me, are nearing the end of their working lives and want to do something interesting and worthwhile for a good cause but feel it’s only right that they should be paid something for their time and expertise, even if it’s a mere fraction of their normal day rate.

Active older people can be a rich resource for charities, in many ways. But it’ll pay the charities not to presume or to take anything for granted. Mutual reciprocity remains the best basis for a low bono or pro bono relationship. At the very least, the client should start by making the offer.


This blog post is part of a series where Ken Burnett takes us back into his own blog archive to share his best timeless posts. These gems are hand-picked by Ken himself. A version of this article first appeared on Ken Burnett’s website in 2010.

Related Articles


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *