I was in complete disbelief as I ended the video call. We had only talked for less than an hour about project deliverables such as mood boards, user personas, and a responsive WordPress theme; yet my very first web design client agreed to sign a contract.

Although I was riddled with anxiety and covered in hives, I was about to receive payment for designing a website–and I hadn’t even started calling myself web designer yet!

When I say ‘my very first client’, this means my FIRST paying client.

If you can relate to me, your first freelance project was likely unpaid. In other words, there was no monetary compensation for all the time and effort put into the project!

I was new to web design, so I didn’t feel comfortable asking for money. Honestly, I believed that any client would be beneficial because it would give me the experience I needed to put in my portfolio and help land other clients who were willing to pay. When viewed from this perspective, it almost seemed like they were doing me a favor by letting me work with them – not the other way around.

If I really think about it, my first project looked nothing like an actual project, and the client didn’t have similarities with my first paying customer. In fact, this “client” was my husband and the “project” didn’t stick to any type of plan.

It’s easy to forget what you know about structuring and scoping a project when you’re working for free or for someone you know.

What’s the point of staying on schedule when there’s no money at stake?

Why do work without getting paid?

How can you insist that the client get you feedback by this Friday when the client is your mom and you don’t want to call her for the third time today?

Your first project shouldn’t be a “throw-away”– something you only do to gain experience on the job. Instead, you should see it as an opportunity and make the most of it.

If you want to be treated like a professional, start by acting and finishing projects as if you are being paid for them.

By holding an unpaid project to the same standards as a paid one, you give yourself a great foundation and provide yourself with an excellent case study for future potential employers.

Pro bono work may not come with a green paycheck, but that doesn’t mean there’s no potential for reimbursement. You can ask to be “paid” through testimonials, reviews, and social media posts. And in some cases, you might even be able to get a client to sign an agreement dictating all of the above.

By following these tips, you can make sure your next volunteer project is worth your time:

Before the Project Starts

The key to ensuring a smooth(ish) freelance project is proper planning. When taking on a pro bono project, your goals should be twofold:

  1. The project is valuable to you.
  2. The project is running efficiently and keeping to the schedule.

In order to get an estimate of the project’s success, ask your client to agree on giving you social proof before beginning work.

1. Get a Testimonial.

Many business owners find it difficult to ask for testimonials, but the truth is that most businesses request them in one way or another. This could be something as simple as asking for a short recommendation or permission to use customer survey results.

In return for your hard work, ask your client to agree to give you a testimonial. Just make sure she knows that if she’s unhappy, she doesn’t have to lie! If the thought of writing a testimonial makes her uncomfortable, offer to draft one for her approval.

2. Get a review from LinkedIn.

Although they might not seem like much, endorsements from LinkedIn can really help you build trust and establish yourself. After completing a project, ask your client to spend 5-10 minutes giving their review of working with you on LinkedIn and endorsing your skills.

3. Develop a Twitter marketing strategy.

I’m not suggesting that you run a huge campaign. Simply ask your client if they would be willing to send some Tweets back and forth during or after the project is completed. If your client isn’t on Twitter, perhaps suggest a Facebook post about the project instead, or even a personal email demonstrating your work and letting others know of the great sites you design.

Oh, and don’t forget to get ahold of the okay from your employer before you use that unpaid project in your portfolio! You wouldn’t want to put all that effort into something only to not be able to march it around for everyone to see.

By setting expectations, you can be sure that the project will stay on track.

5. Plan to revise your work several times.

It’s detrimental to your work-life balance if you do not set restrictions for the number of times a client can send files back for edits. Allowing too many changes will leave you feeling overwhelmed and bogged down with work.

Two to three rounds of edits should be agreed upon with the client beforehand, and then a price set for any further rounds. That way, the client will feel inclined to voice all her concerns in each round of edits, rather than picking apart every small detail later on.

6. Make sure to set the project scope and do your best to follow it.

Just as it’s important to plan the number of rounds of edits, it’s crucial to establish limits for the project in general. Ensure your client agrees to a definite number of features, and be explicit about additional fees she’ll face if she decides she wants a Twitter feed or image slider later on.

7. Define what you want and need from the outset.

Make sure you and your client are in agreement about the project deliverables or everything you will turn over to them at the end of the project. This will help keep your client happy (and prevent scope or communication issues down the line).

A mood board and wireframe are both deliverables, as is a custom WordPress theme or WordPress training video. Make a list of everything your client will receive upon project completion, including any additional costs for items not initially included in the scope of work.

8. Sign an agreement.

Your unpaid client should sign an agreement that outlines everything discussed above. It may appear to be excessive when no money is involved, but your reputation, time, and energy are all still on the line.

You can choose to work with an attorney and draft a contract or opt for a less formal agreement like the template provided here. Both options will ensure that you are held accountable to each other.

Having a written agreement is incredibly helpful when the client is somebody you know well, like a family member or friend. It’s much easier to follow the plan of action when you have a physical document to which you can refer back as needed.

During the Project

You are in charge of the project from beginning to end, and it is your responsibility to ensure its success. The client will look to you for guidance and leadership, so it is important that you stick to the plan.

9. Hold yourself accountable by setting deadlines and sticking to them.

It can be difficult to adhere to a schedule even when money is involved. Just keep in mind that being timely is crucial for 2 reasons in regard to unpaid projects:

  1. You need to get out into the market and start making money as soon as possible. You shouldn’t spend too much time on the sidelines without getting paid.
  2. The purpose of this project is to provide you with experience that will be similar to working with future paying clients. To get the most accurate representation, it is important that you adhere to the rules set forth.

10. Share deliverables.

If you want this project to be successful, stick to the plan and deliver all components on time. Did I mention staying on schedule is important?

11. Beware of project creep.

Project creep is a genuine phenomenon that can make even the most scoped project look entirely different from the original plan.

A usual reason project creep occurs is due to a miscommunication between the freelancer and the client. The customer could believe they’re getting more than what you are. Because of this, it’s key to always clarify the expectations with your client.

For example, is she assuming you’ll make the site mobile-friendly? Or does she think the site comes with custom social media icons included? By asking questions and getting everything out in the open, you can avoid any surprises or miscommunications down the road. That way, when you start the project, you’ll both be on the same page about what features are included – like “custom font pairing.”

12. Maintain boundaries.

In order to update your client most effectively, you need to first understand how they prefer to receive information. Do they read emails more often than texts? When is the best time to give them a call? This project will serve as an opportunity for you not only to test different methods of communication but also to find a rhythm that works well and doesn’t become overwhelming.

If you’re working on a project for someone close to you, like a friend or family member, it’s critical to establish boundaries from the beginning. This way, when (not if) they inevitably try and bring up work-related topics outside of your scheduled time together, you can redirect them in a kind but firm way. For example, if your best friend starts talking about her sidebar at happy hour, say something like “Oh that sounds great! Let’s discuss tomorrow morning over call.” Or if your mom brings up font choices while grocery shopping ask her politelyif she wouldn’t mind waiting until tomorrow so you can talk about it over lunch.

After the Project

Even though the project is done, there’s still more you can do! Ask your client for feedback in order to gain some valuable insight and tips that you can use for future projects. You learned a lot during this particular project, so make sure you get the most out of it by gathering as much information as possible.

13. Get feedback.

In order to get a better understanding of the client’s experience, it is important to interview them via a questionnaire or video meeting. By asking questions such as “What did you love about working with me?”, “When did you feel lost or confused?”, and “What would you do differently if you could do this project over again?”, we can gain valuable insights that will help improve future projects.

Although it may not feel great to receive this type of feedback – especially from a family member – it’s worth hearing. It’s better to get critiques like these from people you know than complete strangers, after all.

It’s totally understandable if you feel like putting in extra effort into an unpaid project is a lot of work for no reward. However, keep in mind that often times these projects lead to future paid opportunities. Make sure to make the most out your time and energy so working for free doesn’t have to be thankless!

[Related: 5 Real-Life Freelancer Horror Stories]

This article was published on Skillcrush.

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