Freelancers Using Pro-Bono or Spec Work To Build Portfolios

Starting out new in any business is not easy, especially the creative freelancing world.  You have to prove your talents and capabilities before someone is willing to pay a decent fee for your services.  

How is freelancing different than working for an established company?  If you go the traditional route of going to college and are lucky enough to land a job working for a corporation in any industry, you are paid a lot of money to do a job that you likely haven't yet convinced anyone you are capable of doing.  You are hired on the expectation that you will perform well and be a valuable asset.  

When you want to go straight to freelancing and working for yourself, it can be a bit more difficult to prove you are capable of doing your job.  Most creatives, regardless if you are a writer, painter, or designer, create a portfolio to show potential clients what they can do.  This is where the idea of doing pro-bono work comes into play.  


Pro-bono work is work you do for free or at a very modest rate.  Pro-bono work is different from charity work.  Pro-bono work implies there is still a professional agreement between you and your client.  You are expected to do work for them just as you would any paying client.  Charity work, even though rewarding for all parties involved, may not lead to paid work in the future.  Pro-bono work is done so you can eventually reach clients that will pay.  But don't get me wrong, you can still do pro-bono work just to help a fella out.    

Regardless of the type of work you choose to do, always have a contract in place.  A contract will protect you and your client.  

You do not have to be fresh out of college or without any work experience to do pro-bono work.  Pro-bono work can be a way for you to experiment with new or challenging ideas that you want to try.  Pushing ourselves out of our comfort zones keeps our creative skills sharp!  

There are some great resources for freelancers you might want to check out regardless if you are offering a paid or pro-bono service:

  • freelance.com
  • elance.com
  • upwork.com (previously odeck.com)


So how does Spec work differ from pro-bono work?  You do pro-bono work with the goal to attract future paying clients and improve your overall portfolio.  Building relationships is key in any business.  Spec work is similar to what you find at 99designs.  If a person chooses to go to 99designs, they pay a relatively small fee to have hundreds of people compete.  Each designer completes a logo, but only one will win the job.  It's like a design lotto and the odds are not in your favor.

Spec work (short for speculative) is any job for which the client expects to see examples or a finished product before agreeing to pay a fee. (Ref. Eric Miller at graphicdesign.about.com)

You do not work with a client directly, therefore, you do not build relationships.  You are likely going to do all of this work with little input from the customer (they are not your clients) and get no return for it.   You have to ask yourself what are you really getting from doing Spec work that will help your talents and business grow.  

People who want customized work will go to a designer directly, or at least they should.  When you are buying a car, you go to the dealer of your choice and work one-on-one with someone to find what is best for you.  You don't go to an auction, give general guidelines like color and size to someone and have a few random choices brought to you without any customization or you needs really considered.  Design is no different. 

Put yourself in the customer's shoes for a minute.  If you are a customer wanting a unique style, let's say retro because you have a 50's style diner, you would likely want to seek out a designer with this type of experience and be able to see several iterations of this specific design.  For a spec type of project, you as the customer would not be able to choose who you work with.  You, the customer, are likely to get people from all sorts of backgrounds and styles who may or may not be producing the best work for you.  You'll get a design that you think is visually appealing, but might not be the best option for your business.

So what's the good news about Spec work?  You can get plenty of experience designing and creating for a wide variety of requests.  If you are trying to determine what your unique style is, maybe Spec work will be the perfect type of random experience you need.  


How can you build a portfolio of any kind without clients?  It's always a good idea to have examples of your work that may not have been created for anyone in particular but show your range of creativity.  A potential paying client will likely want to see more than what you are able to create.  Most will also want to see work you have done for someone else.  

Were you able to understand what they wanted?
Were you able to meet their needs?  
Were they happy with the outcome?  
Were you easy to work with?

You can design and create examples of your work all day long, but if you can't work with people and give them what they are asking you to design, then you might need to brush up on your people skills.  Working for clients requires an entire set of skills all on its own.  You have to know how to balance being friendly with professional.  You need to get paid what you have set out as your standing price and not waiver under pressure from a client that desires big cuts.  These people likely do not value your service or product and are just price shopping.  Let them go on to someone else!     

Once you have a portfolio established with examples of your work and with some examples of how you work with clients, finding a paying client is your next step.  

What type of freelancer are you?

More than 53 million (35%) Americans are freelancers.  A recent study conducted by independent research firm Edelman Berland, “Freelancing in America: A National Survey of the New Workforce,” broke down the freelance community into 5 categories:


1  Independent Contractors (40% of the independent workforce / 21.1 million professionals) - These “traditional” freelancers don’t have an employer and instead do freelance, temporary, or supplemental work on a project-to-project basis.

2 Moonlighters (27% / 14.3 million) - Professionals with a primary, traditional job who also moonlight doing freelance work. For example, a corporate employed web developer who also does projects for non-profits in the evening.

Diversified workers (18% / 9.3 million) – People with multiple sources of income from a mix of traditional employers and freelance work. For example, someone who works the front desk at a dentist’s office 20 hours a week and fills out the rest of his income driving for Uber and doing freelance writing.

Temporary Workers (10% / 5.5 million) - Individuals with a single employer, client, job, or contract project where their employment status is temporary. For example, a business strategy consultant working for one startup client on a contract basis for a months-long project.

Freelance Business Owners (5% / 2.8 million) - Business owners with between one and five employees who consider themselves both a freelancer and a business owner. For example, a social marketing guru who hires a team of other social marketers to build a small agency, but still identifies as a freelancer."


Your time is valuable; ask for something in return.  Even if you're not getting a fee in return for your services for doing pro-bono work, you can still ask for something in return.  Some examples are:

  • Great client testimonials is a perfect way to showcase your client's experience on your website.  A testimonial, if it is a good one, can be proof of a great working relationship and successful completion of a design.  
  • You can also ask for a service in return.  Maybe help out a fellow freelancer, or get something you need to support your business.  If you're a website developer, but not a great photographer, maybe you can design a photographer's website and get some great photos for your site in return.  It's a win-win.  
  • Being referred by word-of-mouth is another great way to be recognized and connect with potential clients.  The next time your client knows of someone who needs a similar service, ask them if they can recommend you.  Leave them with some handy business cards to pass along!
  • Ask to have your work featured on your client's website and give credit to you.  Free publicity!  


Building a portfolio that you are proud of takes time.  You will want to showcase your best work with enough variance to show potential clients your unique talents.  Which will you choose?  Pro-bono work, Spec work, or something else?