How to volunteer your services without killing yourself

I’ve done quite a bit of work for non-profit organizations (typically churches) on their websites. The first few times I did it, I ended up getting burned by the experience but then made some adjustments to the way that I worked which changed everything and made it much more pleasant and fulfilling.

It usually goes something like this. You get involved in some non-profit cause. They find out that you’re a web designer/developer. They say, “Hey we need a website! Can you make it?” So you say, “Yeah! I can!” So away you go! You start designing and building prototypes and show it to them, and suddenly they become very client-like. “I don’t like this”, “Can you change this?”, “Can you add this feature?”, etc. Soon you’re frustrated. You’re thinking, “I’m doing this for free. Can’t they appreciate that?”

This was certainly how I felt for two church websites I built. I started building the website. They loved the progress but kept wanting changes and features and wouldn’t stop! They weren’t doing it maliciously — they just couldn’t stop because they saw progress that they liked and just wanted it to be better.

Here’s what I did to turn things around.

Make it official that you are donating your services

It’s good to donate your services. But let’s call it that. Be a business-person about it and be official about it. Speak to the relevant authorities in the organization that they are engaging you as a contractor but that you are donating your services to the organization.

Put a dollar value on your services

The last church website I did, I basically presented to the Pastor that I would donate up to $10,000 of my services to the church to design and build the church website. This would cover work, changes, maintenance, support, hosting, etc up to a year. By putting a dollar value on the services, the organization knows how much value they are getting and they appreciate it a lot more.

Track time and equivalent market value

One thing that frustrated me before was that the organizations I did work for kept asking for changes. What I ended up doing was logging time and producing estimates for changes. I shocked the Pastor one day when he asked for a significant change in the way that his sermons were being displayed (it was a fundamental database schema change, among other things). For him it was simple – he just wanted it shown this other way. But for me it was at least 20 hours of additional work! I put a dollar value on the changes and told him, “Hey this ‘little’ change you’re asking for will take 20 hours of my time and in real market value is worth $1000.” Are you sure you want to do this? He immediately took a step back and said, “Actually it’s not necessary.”

Hold them to a budget. They will respect that.

Final words

So… if you’re going to volunteer, that’s good. I applaud that. Just do it wisely. Don’t burn yourself!

What do you guys think? Have any horror stories of doing stuff for free? Have any tips? Comment below.


Leonard Teo

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