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7 min read

How Skills-based Volunteering Can Advance Your Design Career

June 1, 2018

“The reward for pro-bono work is not always just in heaven.” — Paul Rand

Why skills-based volunteering?

Design is a resource that makes products more engaging to interact with and easier to use. In 2018, when most companies must consider their digital presence, the demand for design is only growing. While technology companies may have the resources to hire a team dedicated to design and user experience, there’s still a large segment of organizations that don’t have ready access to design resources.

One group that’s especially afflicted by this scarcity is the nonprofit sector. Regrettably, organizations dedicated to tackling some of our world’s most challenging issues are often the most underserved. For many nonprofits, high-quality design work is simply unaffordable.

"The proposition is a win-win: bringing together worthy organizations and private-sector professionals opportunities to further their own skills and career via philanthropic outlets."

Those who are fortunate enough to possess both in-demand skills and the privilege of disposable time (I’m looking at you, Silicon Valley) ought to consider volunteering your skills towards pro-bono work. The proposition is a win-win: bringing together worthy organizations and private-sector professionals looking for opportunities to further their own skills and career. While there are innumerable ways to give — donating money, volunteering your time, tutoring, recruiting, or coaching — skills-based volunteering is an especially impactful way to give back.

It’s okay to ask “What’s in it for me?”

When discussing volunteerism, there is often a focus on the impact for the beneficiaries, but also worthy of highlight is the way in which pro-bono work can benefit the volunteers themselves. So, let’s bypass the “should designers work for free” debate (the answer to that is: usually not, but sometimes it’s okay) — volunteering your time can be to your own advantage because you’re creating opportunities to further your career, developing new skills, and contributing to meaningful causes.

Three ways you can leverage skills-based volunteering

1. Add to your portfolio

Developing a solid portfolio of work can be an initial hurdle for new graduates or individuals looking to switch careers. It can feel like a catch-22 — you need a portfolio to get work, but you need work experience to put together a portfolio. While everyone loves a good passion project (see: Craigslist redesign), your potential clients want to see work that was created under real-world constraints.

A portfolio piece I worked on for the Skillify Foundation — a nonprofit that provides low-income students with equitable professional opportunities.


The nonprofit sector has thousands of worthy projects in ranging complexity and time. There are opportunities for graphic design, product design, UX, web design, environment design, logo design, brand identity, and much more. A designer can use their own discretion to determine the level of commitment they are looking to take on and which skills they’re looking to hone.

2. Broaden your reach

Partnering with a nonprofit means that they will be showcasing your design work across all of their channels. Your work will potentially be front and center on their website, marketing materials, email newsletter, social channels, or even t-shirts.

The benefits of that exposure to your career can be far-reaching. There’s a rich tradition within the design community of individuals and agencies that done pro-bono work for a passion cause, only to have it bring in paying projects down the road. In an interview with John Cary of Fast Company, Paula Scher, a Pentagram partner said:

"I donated a complete sign system for the NYC Parks Department. It was probably the biggest donation I’ve ever made. Then, because of that relationship, after Hurricane Sandy they hired me to do a paid project designing signage for all the beaches."

Examples of well-known pro bono work include the FDA nutritional labels, the Shake Shack branding, and San Francisco’s 2012 Olympic Games bid


3. Expand your network

If you partner with a nonprofit organization whose cause you care about, you’re fostering relationships with a group of like-minded individuals. Someone you meet through volunteering can serve as your advocate, reference, or mentor. Volunteering puts you in the advantageous position of networking outside of the industry where you work. Further, working in a different industry makes you increasingly versatile and expands your repertoire. Gaining experience in a nonprofit can bring about new insights and perspectives, which will impact your professional trajectory in unexpected ways.

Your skills can make a big impact

Nonprofits are working with the ultimate constraint: a lack of resources. It can be difficult to assign immediate ROI to design work, so it can be challenging to justify investment into design resources. Discretionary spending is heavily scrutinized for nonprofits, which are beholden to their beneficiaries. Consider the funds that tech companies invest into their marketing tech stack, hardware, and talent — nonprofits, which tend to have smaller relative budgets, strive to gain exposure on the same digital playing field. These realities make design contributions especially valuable.

The VAD Foundation is a nonprofit organization working in South Sudan to create community-driven development projects. I worked with them in Fall 2016 on a direct mail project which resulted in $250,000 in donations.


Ways to get started:

There are numerous organizations dedicated to matching volunteers with nonprofits who need their services. Nonprofit needs are categorized by time commitment, project scope, and skill set. Professionals can search for volunteer opportunities, targeting causes that they feel passionately about and organizations that need their niche skills. These websites typically vet these organizations to ensure that only bonafide nonprofits are featured. This setup does some serious heavy-lifting for both volunteers and nonprofits by streamlining the process of matchmaking.

  • Catchafire: Matches professionally-skilled volunteers with nonprofits and social enterprises.
  • Taproot +: Consolidates information and resources to help skilled volunteers engage in pro bono work.
  • VolunteerMatchIndexes volunteer opportunities, searchable by location or by cause.

How to get the most out of your volunteering:

  • Select your causes: There are so many worthy causes out there that it can feel overwhelming. Choose a few that speak to you and build relationships there.
  • Make guidelines for yourself: What are you looking to get out of this? What types of projects do you want to look for? How will they map toward your career goals?
  • Set clear expectations: Be upfront about your availability. Ultimately, it doesn’t help anyone to stretch yourself too thin.
  • Ask for credit: Request a LinkedIn recommendation, testimonial, spotlight in a newsletter, and/or a professional reference.

Featured illustration by Ryan Putnam who graciously offered his services pro-bono in the spirit of this article.

Guest post by Natalie Schoch. This post originally appeared on Medium.
About the author:
 Schoch is a digital designer living in San Francisco, CA. She’s currently at Gusto — an HR product for small businesses, focused on brand and storytelling.
Guest Contributer

Written by Guest Contributer

This article was written by a VolunteerMatch Guest Contributor.