Trials and Tribulations of Pro Bono Work

Ordinarily, I don’ t use language such as “morons”, “cheapskates” or “duh” (OK, sometimes “duh”) but I make an exception in this article. I think I was venting.

The following questions were proposed on Facebook a few days ago by a friend of mine.

Is there such a thing as getting something for free?

Should people expect handouts?

I think the questions above dance around the issue and one can conceptualize it better as, “Should you charge for your time and services?”.

Sometimes, I’ll go out of my way for friends or family and work on a computer problem for free for hours (although, I must admit an agenda, “Spreading the word of Gnu/Linux” to those I care about [unbelievers can go to computer hell!]). I also enjoy experimenting and I’m sometimes up for a challenge.

Volunteer work turned bartering

Just a few weeks ago I was asked to look at a computer at a hair salon/alternative health centre. The problem: the computer was generally slow at doing all tasks. I must admit I didn’t do much, and I ordinarily don’t work as a computer admin (if you don’t consider the support I have to do just to keep my university work stations running properly), but I have been asked to problem solve networks in the hospitality industry the odd time. Still, it took time; I had to take a bus out of town, I fell back on experience and know-how they don’t possess (as simple as this may be), and this is what people charge for (possessing knowledge that is in demand which isn’t common knowledge, as simple as this can be to one).

In the end, due to the sensibilities made manifest once there, I didn’t install Gnu-Linux and  I’m glad I didn’t because the lady’s daughter came in the next day and undid my work, blaming me for that day’s connectivity problems. Gee, all I did was reboot the computer and modem, install Firefox and Seamonkey running AdBlock Plus (as lightweight and utlra-lightweight alternatives for Internet Explorer) to reduce wasting processing power on a bloated browser and unnecessary ads (which can easily overburden an old computer). I can’t see how these would affect connectivity. In fact, if anything, they’d improve general computer responsiveness by freeing processing capacity to run mundane user programs. Besides, I left the computer working properly, Internet and all.

Hint to salon: Trying to run Windows Vista on a Pentium era computer, might have been the source problems, duh!

Not knowing what had happened in the interim, I went back a few days later because (and before the brat daughter had undone my work) I’d been offered a haircut in exchange for my troubles, which originally wasn’t part of the plan. I didn’t pay for the haircut, despite that the brat daughter uninstalled Firefox and SeaMonkey. People couldn’t believe I had the audacity to charge (accept a free-of-cost haircut) for a job that was undone. The way I look at it, I performed a service and left the computer fully functional, in fact better than before. Other things that should be noted is that I lost time and money to travel to the hick town, really on more than one occasion, for which I was never reimbursed, either. So, a “free-of-charge” haircut is the least they could/should have offered me.

I can assume the brat had an issue of personal preference and not of functionality because had she seriously thought I had caused the connectivity issues that cropped up days after, they would have called me back to respond for the issue but they didn’t bother. Now if the brat didn’t like Firefox or/and SeaMonkey, that’s a personal issue and one of preference and not functionality. It doesn’t reflect on connectivity, and people certainly should not pass off legitimate computer issues in order to justify their personal preference of a program or computer system when it’s efficiency –whether a tool meets the demands, that is, solves the immediate problem at hand–  that matters.

I know this really counts as bartering and not volunteer work, but it didn’t start out this way. In any case, it points an important issue out, and that most people don’t help others these days because of ingrates such as the daughter in this scenario. It made me feel as though the entire event was a waste of time, an exercise in futility (despite my haircut) –which is why I rather charge (in most cases, if it weren’t for my weakness to share Gnu-Linux with others).


Something else I get asked to do a lot of is translation. I hate doing it for free. Really, I hate the work in general. So, I’ll always charge about 30 U.S. dollars per page, local going rate. You wouldn’t believe how many Chileans try to get this done for free under the guise of friendship, people you hardly know! Especially, this one Mormon kid that regularly tried picking up my little cousin as I walked her from night classes to the rural bus stop, as encharged my aunt. Yeah, I’m going to work for you for free. Classy move, dude, a university student trying to pick up a high-school student in front of her older cousin!

On another occasion, I had one of my father’s business partners ask me to write him up a resume in English. I also had an Adventist minister (chaplain) ask me to translate his five? page resume from Spanish into English. Guess what, both of these morons wanted it done for free. I didn’t even know these people! And to the best of my knowledge, both of them had more work than I did at the time. So where do they get off asking me to work for them gratis? I suspect these shameless shysters would have been ingrates, had I come through.

To this day, the minister doesn’ t even greet me –not that we’re in the same social circle, God forbid, so I suspect he may just be hurt. Petty, isn’t he? … childish and certainly unprofessional. Since then, I’ve heard the chaplain regularly asks the predominantly female English students for free English classes, and always gets turned down. Hmm, I sense more than one pattern somewhere here.

This reminds me of a point … If the shameless person asking is religious, I’ll throw a “Don’t you think a labourer is worthy of his hire?” at them. The mindless variety won’t contradict the reference to holy scripture, and usually leave it be, although, I’ve found the Chilean Mormon type won’t stop at that. Hmm, maybe I should quote from the book of Mormon, which they seem to respect more.

It’s not that I don’t believe in pro bono publico work. I do. I just think this should occur at one’s choosing, when one can afford it, not with people who you have charged previously (or else they’ll want all their work for free), and certainly not at the pushy request of zit faced Mormon brats that don’t know how to graciously remove themselves when the conversation has reached its natural conclusion, but rather just stand there on the sidewalk grinning an idiotic smile, as if high on drugs –oblivious to their surroundings.

If you should decide to work for free, you should be clear as to when you’re willing to volunteer work free-of-charge and exactly what you’re willing to do. This is why … people tend to throw in a lot of work previously not agreed upon, in an attempt to get more work done gratis than conversed, at least in my experience with Chileans. E.g., in the first example above, the brat daughter asked me if the computer station had any virii, in other words, “just have a look, and see what you can do” became “I expect you to disinfect the computer” at some point unbeknownst to me.

Just to clarify, pro bono isn’t really for free either, because I know doing something free-of-charge also has its personal rewards. To put it another way, there’s more than cold cash that exchanges hands when rendering paid services, even if it’s the feeling of being cheated –which I tend to feel when I translate for free and why I always charge nowadays. So, I agree with friends, “Nothing is for free!”.

Having said that, sometimes you’re glad just to help those that really need it, just because you want to do something meaningful or useful. And that’s a “good thing,”. In addition, your free work doesn’t always go unnoticed, allowing a return on your investment with something more tangible at a latter date –perhaps a paying job in the field. At the very least, it can go onto your resume as a transferable skill. But personally, I would leave volunteer work to the young, because they’re in need of the experience. Us older individuals, unless you’re a rich philanthropist, need to attend to our responsibilities and associated bills.

Besides, once you do something for free for someone, that person will never want to pay you for it again. You essentially step down as a professional to an amateur position in people’s mindset, and amateurs don’t get recompensed monetarily –nor does the stigma of being an amateur fade easily from people’s minds. And never forget, people do not appreciate what you do for them, unless you “make them” pay for it with their hard earned cold cash. Besides, as the provider of a service, you have the absolute right to charge, and you shouldn’t be manipulated to feel guilty over this.

So to answer the question,  “Should you charge for your time and services?”. I think there’s little doubt that you should do so for things with which you make your living and/or have a skill others don’t possess –especially if the person asking can afford it and/or has more work than you or a better paying job. Anything else is just someone asking you to take a hit on your livelihood, and this is less than fair –especially when they’re well off– to say the least. In fact, you should take it as an insult. I do.

Still, I leave some leeway for family and pet subjects (such as Gnu-Linux), and you may do so depending on your financial situation. Even so, considering experiences such as mine with the ingrates at the alternative health centre, you may think twice before even thinking about free-of-charge work again. If you should so choose to continue, you need to think about when you can come through to support your community. Well, let’s see … when you have steady paying work, but (and this is key here) are not overworked and when convenient.

This should have been the end of my article/diary entry, but I felt compelled to detail how I charge for freelance work that comes my way, every once in a while. I encourage you to develop your own –perhaps a charge per word if doing translation or a hybrid– billing system. In any case, I hope the below serves as a guide. Feel free to detail your system, rate, and city & country where you work in the comments section.

How to charge

Personally, I’ll charge for everything if I’ve been out of work recently, starting with a base charge (used to be $30 USD). Now, if you have all the work you can handle and possibly then some … well this is when I start to “over” charge because this work is inopportune, and it takes up the little amount of quality free time I have left. I also charge more when a translation needs to be rushed –overnight or from one day to another– involves research (such as intro technical vocabulary), or learning about the field at hand, such as reading a book/manual or interviewing professionals in the field. I also charge more when I’m asked to work on weekends or holidays (usually time and a half, or my rate and a half, at least).

You can offer a package deal for papers or articles, as this is usually expected. For such work, I’ve been paid a couple of hundred dollars (by university grade students) and have personally heard of others being paid up to 800 US dollars for work involving national or international business.

Presently, I don’t charge for sometimes looking something over and giving an “open” estimate, but I like how computer repair techs work in Canada, charging 60 dollars (probably over 100 now) just to look at a computer –although, I’m not sure this would fly. I’d also like to fully charge for cancelled meetings and private classes in the absence of a three day notice. After all, you’re a professional and have to prep for these appointments regardless if they are held or not.

I know this sort of talk scares away some clients, but the serious stay. They are often willing to pay a higher rate, too, and I find them more loyal. After all, they’ll willing to pay more because they trust you –for some reason or another. Perhaps they’ve heard good references.

As for the (wishy-washy) cheapskates, I don’t like losing good paying jobs to cater to them, especially when you move things around only to have them cancel on you, or find out they’ve sent work elsewhere because of cheaper prices. So identify them and proceed according to your common sense (which in my opinion means no deals and higher prices, as I’m risking wasting time my time), but stick to your own principles and remember you deserve to be recompensed monetarily for things such as experience, education/training, etc.

Note that if you’re a native speaker of the language you translate to, in my case English, your selling point is natural, fluid, and accurate translation –and this counts ($$$). Don’ t ever let anyone convince you otherwise. Now if you’re not only bilingual but actually fluent, and can write in both languages –such as I do in English and Spanish– then these skills are more highly marketable than that of non-native speakers (Chilean English teachers and translators), whose English is only ever going to be second rate.

If this article sounds abrasive or unprofessional, (perhaps I can because I can afford to as) I’m talking about free lance work that does not form my primary income, so separating the wheat from the chaff literally saves me time, trouble, and money –things I take seriously. To look at it another way, I make a conscious choice to work with/for serious people I respect and with which I enjoy interacting. This to me is how business should be conducted, rather than pandering to lowest common denominator, what most businesses do –as if some kind of cheap harlot.

And if you think, I picking on Chileans, well “self-critique” is legit.

Maurice Cepeda

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