Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Why Pro Bono Work Can Set the Wrong Expectations: Part 2

This is part 2 in a series of blog posts to discuss some things that have been on my mind recently related to the careers industry. Yesterday's post is "We Are All Ambassadors," and you can read it here. I talked about how we need to be remember that we are representing our entire profession of resume writers when we comment or provide advice on careers-related topics online.

Today's post has to do with pro bono work. It relates to yesterday's topic, because I talked about some not-so-nice discussions going on in certain LinkedIn groups ... and one of them had to do with pro bono work. It was a discussion that garnered almost 50 comments -- it stayed pretty civil -- well, until the last few comments. Apparently, an earlier discussion was equally lively, and led to a post on the "Look Before You Leap" blog. I hadn't looked at that article when I started writing my post, but the author points out a lot of good things to think about.

I personally write up to a handful of pro bono resumes each month. They can be for family members, or friends, or even friends of friends, if they're someone in need. Usually, someone asks me to take a look at their existing resume -- very few of them are starting completely from scratch.

But yesterday's Facebook exchange with the "friend" of my friend who was looking for cover letter help underscored an important problem when providing pro bono services. Sometimes the recipient doesn't understand the value of the service you've provided. That can be either a monetary value (i.e., someone who hasn't been on the receiving end of seeing their professional career transformed into a working document that speaks to their personal value as an employee doesn't "get" why a resume can cost an average of $400) or even something like questioning the document when it's completed (this would be akin to "looking the (proverbial) gift horse in the mouth." If they haven't paid for the resume, are they more likely to question your resume strategy? Are they more likely to question how valuable a "free" resume can be for helping them?

I had another similar situation arise last week. As I mentioned yesterday, being friends on Facebook can lead to folks asking for career advice. My younger brother's former kindergarten teacher (and the wife of a former neighbor's son -- I told you, Facebook makes for some strange friendships!) contacted me through a Facebook message to inquire about help for her daughter, who had recently graduated from college, but wasn't confident in her resume. I asked her mom to have her send me the resume so I could see what she had to work with. Her mom wrote back, "She has a resume (so she says) but she is worried that it is soooo weak. She needs to visit with someone -- other than her mother -- for advice, at least that is what I think -- HA! I haven't seen her resume -- and she had some college help. I think some professional advice would be so beneficial." So, once again, I asked her to have her daughter send me her resume. The next day, I received this message: "I'm going to work with (daughter) on her resumes -- she has one for Art and one for Business applications. They are both extremely 'light' on information. Can you refer us to a book or website with some solid info to model, as we build these resumes?" Mind you, there was no discussion of fees or work process or anything at that point. I had simply asked to see the resume. (Going back to yesterday's theme of "We Are All Ambassadors," I didn't (couldn't!) respond to her request for a "book or website ... to model" without my head exploding. So I didn't respond at all.) When someone is asking for help on behalf of someone else, will the "end recipient" value your work? (Early on in my resume writing career, I stopped accepting projects set up by wives for their husbands. I should add rejecting requests from moms for their kids to that list!)

As Miranda points out on the "Look Before You Leap" blog, providing discounted services may also lead to referrals from folks expecting the same cheap/discounted/free service. I mean, it's tough to say in an email, "Hey, here's the resume I wrote for you for free that I would normally charge $400 for ..." Do you link them to your "Prices" page on your website, so they can see what you'd normally charge? Do you mock up a dummy invoice and put the $400 discount on there, so the end line item is $0? That question addresses the issue of whether you provide free or discounted services as a way to build your portfolio or business, instead of as a way to "give back."

Another issue I hadn't considered until yesterday... if I write someone's resume for free, and they choose to give me a gift for doing so, does it devalue my services? If they get a $50,000 job, and send me a $100 gift card in appreciation, I'm thrilled to get it. (After all, I wasn't expecting anything -- I wrote the resume as a favor.) But do they think, then, that the resume is only worth $100? (Again, they may be unfamiliar with your "normal fees" -- and I'm not speaking specifically here about folks who you help because they are unable to afford your services ... I'm talking about friends and family.)

I also consider: "How will I feel about providing help?" I like to give back. (I often say that resume writers have a little bit of "social worker" in us. I sure do.) I once helped a down-on-his-luck friend who had been unemployed for several months by writing his resume. Then, he came back to me asking for a federal resume. (I generally don't write federal resumes or military transition resumes.) Then he showed up at my door unannounced occasionally over the next month, usually because he wanted to tweak the resume (and/or cover letter) for a job posting. Fortunately, he landed a job before I resented him too much. But often when we say "Yes" initially, it doesn't mean "Yes...forever." Having standards for who -- and when -- you will help folks is important. So is setting boundaries so you don't feel taken advantage of. (I have trouble setting boundaries.)

So here's my takeaways: DO continue to volunteer your services when you feel it's appropriate. DON'T expect anything in return. DO establish guidelines for yourself on who you will help, and under what circumstances. DON'T be surprised if you don't get the response you expect from the people you're helping. DO continue helping others anyway. (DON'T throw the baby out with the bathwater.)

I don't have all the answers. (Like I said earlier, the inspiration for this topic just struck me yesterday.) But I'd be interested in your feedback -- either on here (in the comments below), or on the Resume Writers' Digest Facebook page.


  1. Another great article, Bridget! Thanks for sharing!

  2. Excellent article. My biggest headaches come from pro bono work and "middle men" referrals that don't know how to step out of the equation so I can communicate with the actual client that needs the resume.