What’s the Difference Between Pro Bono and Spec Work?

Is there a difference between pro bono and spec work? If so, what’s the difference?

First, let’s compare them. With both, you work for free, providing your creative services at no charge. Neither is income-generating. And that’s where the comparison ends. The difference is in why you work for free, and also in who initiates the project.


What is pro bono work?

Pro bono work is for the good, to take up a cause or to help out a client. The freelancer is practicing generosity and putting the needs of others above their own. In contrast, spec work is at minimum a test, and may be a ploy by the client to acquire creative work without paying for it.

A big difference is that pro bono work is something a freelancer chooses to do. Services are offered in support of a worthy cause. I encourage freelancers to take up a cause, but to also be strategic in how they go about it. Pro bono work should not replace paid projects. Freelancers need to generate revenue, and donating their services does not help their bottom line. It’s a really good idea to devise a pro bono policy and even require an application process.

Another common factor in pro bono work is that the freelancer often initiates the project. She recognizes a need and wants to help, and approaches the organization with an offer of services to support the cause.

Freelancers are not required to do pro bono work, and should not do it unless their heart is in it and it’s for a cause they really care about. When pro bono work is required or demanded by a client, it becomes spec work.


When pro bono work is required or demanded by a client,
it becomes spec work.


When considering pro bono work, ask  yourself, “What will it lead to?” Will you gain paying clients? Will you be able to use the work for self-promotion? Does it fit with your values and life goals? Will it offer a great amount of creative freedom? Decide on a set of criteria to guide you in whether a project is worth it.


When you engage in pro bono work, you should:

Use a contract as if it’s a paid project, and do not begin work until the client has signed the contract and you’ve answered all their questions. It’s a real project even if unpaid, and should be treated like any paid project. The contract should be specific about deliverables, deadlines, rights transferred and when they transfer and for how long, and the total value of the work. It should include whether or not the freelancer is to receive name credit and will be using the work for their self-promotion campaigns. If the pro bono work is in exchange for an in-kind sponsorship, the exchange opportunities (ad space, social media takeover, for example) should be clearly stated. The client needs to follow through on their end with what they promised.

Provide the client with an invoice that shows the full value of the work performed and the discount being applied. This reinforces the value of your services and the resulting intellectual properties, even though the client did not pay for them.

Pass through expenses at cost, with no mark-up to the client. Expenses should not be underwritten by the freelancer but charged to the client.

Set a limit on the amount and/or scope of pro bono work. This can be in the form of percentage of your overall work load, a specific number of projects per year, or a total amount of hours per year.

In regard to income taxes (United States) the IRS does not allow deductions for pro-bono creative services. But you are allowed to deduct tangible direct expenses related to the projects. Talk with your accountant or tax attorney about what expenses are allowed.


What is spec work and why is it wrong?

Spec (speculative) work is either going to be a test or a ploy. Spec work is required or demanded by a client at no cost to them in order to either get custom designs for free, to acquire ideas, or to prove you can do the type of work they need (which your portfolio should already demonstrate). It’s an “I’ll pay for it if I like it” situation. Much of the time the client will say they don’t like the work and cannot use it, but will go ahead and use it in some form.

Spec work means you’re giving away your time, talent and expertise for free, which is most likely contrary to why you are freelancing in the first place. Doing spec work to prove your worth to a client steals your time, your skill and your talent. You can never get back the time you spend doing work that will get you nowhere. So why do it?


Spec work means you’re giving away your time, talent and expertise for free,
which is most likely contrary to why you are freelancing in the first place.


Spec work is requested by non-profits and for-profits alike. For-profits are looking to cut costs, and non-profits claim entitlement by their status. In both cases you are devalued by having to prove your worth.


Responding to requests for spec work.

What if you really want to work with a client but they’re demanding that you work on spec? Counter their request with an offer to develop 2-3 concepts for an initial fee. This will allow them to decide if they want to move into a full-on contracted project. If you use this scenario, be sure you use a contract and obtain a down payment before you begin working on the concepts. If the client is unwilling to sign a contract and provide an advance, they’re also likely to be unwilling to pay you for any work performed. If this is the case, walk away. No one can force you to work for free.


Are contests spec work?

Yes, contests are spec work if the contest producers will profit from the contest but the creative talent will not.

Crowd-sourced contests in which a client issues a call for entries in exchange for a prize are a form of spec work. If you enter your work, you will spend time and invest skill and thinking in creating the work — on spec — with no guarantee of payment for services unless you authored the winning entry. Even if you win, what are the rights transferred? How extensively will your work be used? Is the prize money sufficient for all possibilities? Is there prize money involved? If you don’t win, what happens with the art file(s) you entered?


At the writing of this article, Dan Brown, author of The Da Vinci Code novel franchise, and his publisher, Knopf-Doubleday, are running a contest for the design of his latest opus, Origin. The winning design will be used to promote limited editions of the book. The publisher is offering the winner promotion valued at $1,000.00. This is from the contest website:

“Six (6) Finalist Winners and their Cover Designs will each be featured and promoted on multiple Penguin Random House websites and social media channels.

“One (1) Grand Prize Winner will have their design produced as a special limited edition of the forthcoming Dan Brown book and will receive 24 copies of the special limited edition book. In addition, Dan Brown will announce the winning design and Winner live at BookCon on June 3, 2017.

“Approximate Retail Value of all prizes: $1,000.00.”

Doubleday has clarified that one of their staff designers is designing the retail cover, and that the contest is for a limited edition which will not be sold. Designer Jessica Helfand takes on the contest here in terms of the value of design and the appropriateness of the contest. She points out the hypocrisy of a multi-millionaire author who’s profited from his creative work asking fellow creatives to work for free — just for the exposure.

A related article by Meg Miller at Co.Design points out that Doubleday has reasoned that the winning designer does not need to be paid for their work because the limited edition will not be sold.


Refuse requests for spec work, and all the more so when it’s in the guise of a contest. There are other opportunities out there that will provide you with revenue and acknowledge your value as a creative professional.

Because you’re a freelancer, you have the power to choose. If you want to work for free, you can. If you want to accept spec work, that’s entirely up to you. If you want to participate in a contest, it’s your right to do so. But think of the larger view. Participating in practices that devalue creative work delegitimize the creative professions. Spec work makes it more challenging for your fellow freelance creatives to earn revenue from their work. If every freelancer took a practical stand against spec work, the problem would disappear.

What do you think? Share your thoughts in the comments.

Resources for you:


AIGA Position on Spec Work

Design Contests Are Unethical

MIT Museum Latest To Hold Bad Creative Contest

Unpaid Internships Are A Form Of Spec Work

Against Crowdsourcing Design: an Open Letter to the Tokyo Olympic Committee

Why Are designers Still Expected To Work For Free?

Design Competition As Bake-Off

Your turn: If you do not already have a policy on speculative and pro bono work, set aside an hour this week to write one and publish it on your web site.

2 Responses

  1. Hello Alvalyn,
    Thanks for your post. It acts like a weapon for an innocent wandering freelancer inside a deadly forest filled with deadly creature. The good point is that there are still good people like you to help others with the power of their advice.