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Learning to say no to pro bono work saved my business

Learning to say no to pro bono work saved my business

A version of this commentary was published in the Globe and Mail

It wasn't the first time I'd heard the request. In fact, it's an all-too-common question that many consultants and small-business owners encounter pretty regularly, and it usually goes something like this: "Do you think you could do this one for free? It's for a really good cause." So is feeding my children.

Learning how to say no to pro bono work may sound cold-hearted, but it saved my business. At first, I rarely said no and donated back-breaking hours to non-profit organizations who were working to improve our communities and better the lives of our citizens. They weren't wrong: It was always a good cause.

But it meant I was overworked, often underappreciated ("in-kind" donations rarely get the accolades that monetary donations do) and too burnt out to grow my company. I also started to notice that the people who ask for pro bono work are rarely unpaid themselves, and, too often, it was the highly paid professionals who most frequently asked that I work for free.

It was no way to run a business.

I fell into entrepreneurship, loved it and just kept on going. More than a decade and half ago, I was offered a small policy contract, loved the freedom to dive in and focus on the work and when I finished the deliverable, looked for more. Word of mouth meant that more contracts found me.

Now I run my own successful small communications company and work regularly with Canadian think tanks, politicians and non-profits on media and political strategy, policy research and media writing and editing. I love the varied work, and my clients never cease to impress me with the range of their ideas and their dedication and passion for what they do. I feel really lucky most days to have forged my own way, and for the ability to choose who I want to work with on what topics.

But learning how to say "no" was an important part of the process of growing my business. I know other entrepreneurs – particularly women, who most often work in the non-profit sector – have had to learn the same lesson. As Martha Muzychka, a communications consultant in St. John's, told me: "The bank doesn't want cookies and jam for the mortgage."

Of course, I still believe in charity and giving back to my community. So, at the beginning of every business year, I select my favoured organization and plan the specific amount of time I will donate – and then, I stick to that plan. Pro bono work is part of my annual business planning, in other words. It means I can say no to other good causes that inevitably come my way without any guilt.

I know other consultants and small-business owners who take slightly different approaches. Sarah Elaine Eaton, a strategy consultant in Calgary, told me that the work she does as a volunteer must differ from the work she does professionally. "Differentiating roles helps me to set boundaries and stick to them." Lee Tunstall, a research consultant in Calgary, said "one of the only ways I'll do pro bono work is if I can see that there may be a business development opportunity in it for me. Or if it is for one of my chosen charities." Ms. Muzychka says she offers "a discounted rate to groups that are working on issues close to my heart."

Learning to say no has rarely lost me a client. In fact, most of the people who initially ask me to work for free end up becoming paying clients. They respect the boundaries I've set, they know I'll do good work for their good cause, but also that my time and expertise deserves to be paid for.

Learning to say "no" in business is one of those rites of passage – a necessary step on the way to knowing your worth and understanding your value. When you reflect that knowledge back to others, they respect you in turn.

November 2015

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