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

Published by Ken Burnett on

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.

KB3Email1On 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.

Ken Burnett

Ken Burnett

Ken Burnett is an author, lecturer and consultant on fundraising, marketing and communications for nonprofit organisations worldwide.


Mitch Hinz · July 19, 2014 at 09:34

Dear Ken,

I was going to say “Wow you just dated us!” by referring to Cialdini, but it is STILL the best marketing (fundraising) book ever written.

I would include Chip and Dan Heath (both “Made to Stick” and “Switch”).

With those three books alone, any NGO fundraiser can ‘change his OWN world (i.e. organization).

Thanks for sticking to what matters. And I could not agree more: if I had a Euro for every person who *assumed* I will help them because they are a charity, I could run the Gates Foundation.

Oh, and thanks for WRITING THIS DOWN FOR FREE!

It was pro bono on your part, yes?

The least we can ALL do is say “Thanks!”.

Cheers, best,
Mitch Hinz
(now at Plan International)

    Ken Burnett · July 19, 2014 at 10:55

    Hi Mitch,

    Many thanks for this. You’re right, of course, with a few good books we’re all better equipped to change the world. Which is why it still surprises me to meet so many folk in our field who imagine they can make do without reading any of the classics. Maybe they can’t read…

    And yes, writing this stuff is indeed pro bono. Like most would-be writers I have to confess that I earn just enough from writing to keep me in my day job, waiting at tables.

    Still, my new book ‘Storytelling Can Change the World’ will be out soon, and that, I’m sure, will change everything (double underlined!).

    Writers at least can dream.

    All best,


Amanda · July 28, 2014 at 23:15

This is a difficult one, I can see both sides on this. First the charity that is definitely expected to do more with less and is looking for ways to get that inspiration and support and then second the person giving their time to share their knowledge and wisdom. I do agree that the way the ask is made in this instance is badly done, starting off with far too much flattery and expectation of what the speaker can do for them with a cheeky add in of by the way you are great, but we can’t pay you as we have no money. It may seem shocking but when you are dealing with charities, and in many instances, more so with local ones rather than the nationals, no budget is common. Would donors be happy knowing that you spent £800 on a speaker plus VAT and expenses or that that money has gone on direct services to benefit people using the cause, even if that means that your donations could have gone up by say 30% because of your spend? In the main, no, why? because most people will assume that people helping and supporting the charity will do so for free. That’s just the way most, not all, people think. I do accept that speakers’ time is valuable and the way this charity went about it was wrong. Yes we should be looking a people who are more aligned to your own charity’s philosophies and often people who are geographically closer to reduce costs, but what if you are not in a particularly rich area for talented people who can make a difference to your charity? If you are regularly asked to speak on a topic in a simplistic way is it not possible to have a number of pre-prepared products that you can use? Over time the way they are delivered is what will change surely? The first few times of new product delivery are the hardest but as time goes on you are able to ad lib and adapt because you know your product – that’s the vital bit. I wouldn’t make an expectation of someone for free, however, there are some very hefty fees out there that, simply put, if I working in a profit environment I would seriously struggle to justify. It’s not about the person selling themselves ‘cheaply’ but isn’t the ability to make a difference a big part of wanting to do this? A reduced fee and negotiations around additional expenses should be par for the course in this situation and I do know of people that have then subsequently donated their fee back to the charity. What about suggesting other people who could help out if you can’t? In many instances you would have access to circles that the charity doesn’t which would still be a way of helping? Yes, we all have to eat and I do work now for half that I have previously been paid because I have the same bills and a child to feed so cannot work for free full time. I don’t see my job as being restricted to what I am paid for though and look for ways and ideas to help my charity whenever I can.

The bigger issue I see is how the asks are made, meaning that people will always charge you and often the full rate as a result of what you say or even because of what you expect. So although ‘if you don’t ask you don’t get’ is something we all bandy about, it’s important not to just ask – don’t forget the story and if you get asked, don’t forget to think outside the box if you can’t help, please. Soap box rant over.

Jeff Porter · August 1, 2014 at 03:20

Jeff Porter
Jeff Porter
co-founder / CEO Handbid

This is a situation that almost any of us who provide products and services to charities encounter. We love supporting charities and it makes businesses like Handbid that much more rewarding to build and manage. I sympathize with the author: It can be difficult to respond to requests for discounts. “Yes, we realize you are a non-profit, but it costs money to build this software and pay people to devote their time to helping you raise money through your auction.”

Moreover, we find that most charities often forget that other aspects of their fundraising cost them money. They pay fees to the caterer, the venue, the photographer, etc. All of these are a standard cost of sales. Those businesses would not survive if they were constantly giving discounts or doing pro-bono work. Our system, ironically, is one that could actually increase the charity’s top line (our mobile bidding system consistently raises more money over paper).

Reciprocity does prompt us to consider discounts…on the backend as we offer customers credits on their fees when they refer new business to us. We will continue to do that.

In summary, I don’t fault any charity for asking for a discount or pro bono work. You don’t get what you don’t ask for. However, it is important that non-profits understand the principles behind running and growing a business, and I would hope that they understand and accept when the answer is respectfully, “no”.

Bobby · November 16, 2014 at 02:53

I have tried for the last couple of months to give my christamas
day to a charity if meaning spending my whole christmas day
helping out at a soup kitchen I have applied to different organisations but nobody will reply to me can not beleive it anyway you can advise me what i can do please do not say
to me well sorry but get in touch with??? Because everybody
replies the same!!!?. It is very sad that someone can not be
helpful all i want to do is give for christmas and it is so
complicated why!!!, Please help me….

Henry Larry · February 29, 2024 at 06:04

Emphasizing reciprocity in pro bono relationships is key. It is a call for charities to consider the mutual benefits and motivations involved paving the way for more effective and fulfilling collaborations.
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