It’s OK to ask for help…

At least once a week, I’m approached with a request for pro-bono help.

I don’t mind these requests most of the time. It’s actually flattering, in an odd way, to think that my expertise is recognized as useful even though it’s not something really useful like how to make pasta, perform surgery, or fix a leaky pipe.

Don’t get me wrong, I know they’re valuable skills. But people usually only ask for help en masse when something is truly useful.

Many people have wonderful ideas but no clue how to market them. A few people want to build the next Facebook or implement some sort of get-rich-quick scheme, but they’re a rarity. When most people ask for help, it’s because they can identify with you personally and because they’ve identified your skills as the thing they’re missing.

My business is centered around the premise of building up our community. From the low-cost social media classes offered by the Digital Gunslingers to WTF Marketing‘s pro-bono and pay-what-you-can project rosters, I’ve designed my business to help others – even if they couldn’t always afford my help. The fact that I receive requests for free help doesn’t bother me, at all.

What does bother me is when someone asks for help the wrong way.

I’ve identified a few specific requests for help that illicit an eye-roll from me:

  • Speculative Work (graphic designers are no strangers to this one) – work whose payment hinges on whether or not the beneficiaries “like” the outcome. Often times this is used as an excuse for non-payment or under-payment.
  • Equity Work – work whose payment hinges on whether or not the beneficiaries are successful and “like” the outcome. In other words, “I’m totally broke, but I think this is a good idea. And if we don’t get our Kickstarter totally funded, you’re SOL on payment.”
  • Unscoped Work – work whose boundaries are unclear, whose beneficiaries are fuzzy on what they want, need, or like, and usually on a project that has no real end goal. If you take this on – you usually end up working indefinitely for some fixed amount of money while the number of revisions and hours worked skyrockets.
  • Questionable Value Work – work whose return on investment (ROI) for the beneficiary is unclear. “We think we need a new website” or “We’d like to have a new logo in these colors, but our in-house graphic designer isn’t aware we’re making these changes” or “We need a social media plan that our intern will be implementing”. This is perhaps the worst – since certain stakeholders are not involved in the decision to pull the trigger, you can’t be sure you’ll get paid, what the end-product should look like, what the goal of the project should be, or what constitutes “done”.
  • The Picasso Sketch – work whose beneficiary has no earthly idea what resources the task in question takes to accomplish, how much it might cost, or how valuable the outcome will be. The story goes, a woman has a chance encounter with Picasso – and taking advantage of the opportunity – begs Picasso to draw a sketch of her. After about 5 minutes, he hands her the portrait and she gushes about how much she loves it and offers some payment for his time. Picasso tells her the cost – 5,000 franks – and she balks. “How can it cost so much?” she asks, “It only took you 5 minutes!” Picasso replies, “No madam, that took me my entire life.”

I’m sure you can think of a few more examples, probably of things you’ve encountered personally. The sad part is, it usually only takes getting burnt once to completely turn off the charitable spirit of most talented individuals.

So what is the right way to ask for help?

The right way to ask for help starts with an understanding that the requests above are the starting point for many requests for help. Don’t start there – use them as things to avoid in your ask.

In short, the best way to ask for help is to think about how you would like to be asked for help and do that. Imagine you have a truck and someone you don’t even know asks you to help them move. Under what conditions would you say yes?

I would argue most people’s default answer to pro-bono projects is “Yes”, because almost everybody loves doing good work whether they get paid for it or not. But with more information about the project (or the lack thereof), “Yes” quickly turns to “No”.

Using that premise, you have to avoid getting red-flagged. Here’s my filtering criteria (these will vary depending on how well I know you, how much I like your idea, and on the kind of work you’re asking me to do):

  • What exactly can I help you with? (the more specific, the better)
  • How do we define done? (at what point am I off the hook?)
  • What is the end-goal?
  • Why is this a pro-bono project?
  • How will my involvement legitimately improve the outcome?
  • Did you use the words “equity”, “quick”, “simple”, etc, in describing my involvement?
  • Has your work been vetted by an independent agency?
  • Do you have a working prototype, an example, or some sort of other tangible asset I can judge, see or touch for myself?
  • What kind of tangential partners do you have? Who are you working with?
  • Who else have you asked for help? (if you ask two graphic designers and both say yes, you have a problem)
  • What is in it for me? (if you say “equity”, I’m out)

The only thing you really have to understand is this: just like you have your own specialized skills, professionals like me have their own specialized skills that you need.

It might take us 1/10th of the time it takes someone without our specific expertise to do the same task, but that doesn’t mean it won’t take time away from our clients, family, weekend, etc to help. That’s the real barrier you’re facing and why everything I’ve listed above has to be crystal clear.

Just like your hypothetical truck and the stranger asking for help, without knowing exactly how much skin we have to put in the game and why we’re doing it, help isn’t very likely.

(Header photo: Help!)