Tips for Pro Bono Work

Lee Hillam , 10 February 2020

Dunn and Hillam Director Lee Hillam shares her experiences and tips about incorporating pro bono work into practice in a sustainable way.

Can you describe the type of pro bono work you have done in the last few years? What are the benefits to your practice? 

Generally speaking, we don’t do pro bono work for an entire project. We can’t really afford to do that. What we will do is help get projects underway or through a particular hoop for community groups or NGOs. For example, we have done masterplans and sketch designs for a small community hall in Muttama NSW. About half of the work we did was done pro bono and the rest done at cost rates.

We proposed a pro bono + cost rate project for Bush Heritage (but didn’t actually get taken up on the job, because even with that someone else was cheaper!)

We’re also doing a kindergarten outdoor learning space for free for our local primary school. This is partly in gratitude to the school for the fantastic time both our kids had when they were there – they’ve both finished now.

There’s been lots of other stuff through the years, but those projects are a pretty good sample.

How do you incorporate pro bono work into the project pipeline of your practice in a financially sustainable way? 

It generally is something that we’ll use to let a junior person have a go at something, and so build their experience. We don’t agree to do big chunks of work all at once because we know it has to fit in around everything else.

We also calculate our hourly rates generally in the office based on people being between 70-80% chargeable, so pro bono work is one of the things they can do in the non-chargeable time. (Directors and admin people are between 0 and 50% chargeable).

How do you decide what kind of projects to take on?

We’ve never had hard and fast criteria, but I wouldn’t work for free for people who hadn’t put in time for free themselves. So, if the community hall work is being funded by cake stalls and organised by a voluntary committee then they have a chance. 

We will support people pro bono in getting organised to go for a grant, but this could be more correctly classified as ‘buying ourselves a job’, which I think lots of practices do. If they get the grant, they come back to us to do the work.

What challenges and pitfalls should people be aware of before taking on pro bono projects?

Working for money places a value on your time and talent that people understand. When you work for free, although you might think that people would appreciate it even more, it can often lead to people not valuing the work you’re doing. We always give people a full fee proposal and then apply a discount to the part we’re going to do pro bono. That way they get some sense of what they’re getting for free.

What advice would you give to others who are keen to take on pro bono work?

Do it to be part of your community but don’t expect people to think you’re a hero. Probably lots of other people involved in the project are putting in their time and talent for free also, so respect that and get on with the job.  But it is a great way to contribute, in the way that everyone should, to the local community. 

3 - Muttama Hall 2

Dunn and Hillam are working pro bono and at cost on the masterplan and DA for the Muttama Hall in the small rural community of Muttama, assisting a volunteer committee. The construction works were funded by local fundraising and multiple small government grants.

Lee is co-director of Dunn and Hillam Architects, which was founded in 2001 with Ashley Dunn and is established as a practice with expertise in heritage, regional towns, arts and culture and sustainability. From October 2016 through to April 2019, Lee worked in a variety of roles at GANSW centred around Design Excellence and was instrumental in producing the Design Guide for Heritage for the Office of Environment and Heritage. Lee has worked for Richard Leplastrier, Architect as a student and graduate architect and Jeffrey Broadfield as a carpenter. Lee has taught and lectured at the University of NSW and the University of Sydney, contributes regularly to Parlour and to Architecture Australia and participates in competition juries and design review panels.