Interpreting 4-1-1: Guidelines to Help Interpreters When Doing Pro Bono Work

Interpreting 4-1-1: Guidelines to Help Interpreters When Doing Pro Bono Work

By Brenda Cartwright
Thursday, December 4, 2014

This article is written by Brenda Cartwright (BC). Brenda is a seasoned interpreter, a master teacher and a well known author. BC also contributes numerous blog articles for Signing Savvy. Look for them on the “Articles” tab on our website.

By offering pro bono services, interpreters are enriched professionally and personally. This is something interpreters should all do on a regular basis.  Pro bono work is an important part of professional development and it is a great way to help others in need, provide a gift to thank others, and give back to your community.

Interpreters provide a specialized skill and it has monetary value.  Interpreters are trained professionals who have and continue to invest a lot of time and money in being an interpreter. Additionally, quid pro quo, the deaf community has invested time in interpreters. It is important to avoid giving the impression that interpreting services are “no big deal.” This is an important conversation to have with our clients and among other interpreters. If clients do not understand the value of our services or that we interpret to earn a living, the gesture of pro bono work will not be valued.

By following some ground rules, you can set better expectations and have better working relationships with your clients (and friends) when doing pro bono work.

1. Establish the relationship.

Pro bono work is usually a one-time occurrence and the next interpreter will reasonably expect payment.  Before agreeing to a job, consider how/if doing this will affect the next interpreter who follows.

Evaluate the interpreter services required.

  • Is it going to be an ongoing situation or a one-time occurrence?
  • Is this a way to avoid paying for services that others customarily pay for?
  • Is it a gift (for example a wedding gift)?

Be willing to discuss the job and the client’s expectations bluntly so you are in agreement of what services you are providing. Is it a gift, a favor, or are you giving back to the community?

2. Define your services.

When a client knows up front that there are fees but that you are providing them pro bono, it is less likely for misunderstandings to happen.

Use the term “pro bono” as opposed to “volunteer.” Volunteers donate their time and are not necessarily trained professionals in a specific field, while pro bono work, short for pro bono publico, is when a professional provides their skills as a public service, typically to people who cannot afford their services.

There are many fields where it is common for professionals to engage in pro bono work, most notably lawyers, but also professionals in medicine, technology, architecture, marketing, and strategy consulting firms.  Sometimes a comparison between lawyers doing pro bono work and interpreters doing pro bono work helps clients understand the concept.

3. Determine and share the value.

Determine what you would normally charge for the services you provide and share that information with your client.

Fill out an invoice to show the amount it would have cost and then put $0.00 as the total due to show the true value.

Optionally, you could charge for your services and then donate that amount back to the organization. (However, if you choose this method, communicate that when establishing the relationship and defining your services).

Sharing the value will help the client to respect you as a professional, understand the value of the services you provide, and appreciate the pro bono work you provide.

If you have your own tips about taking Pro Bono work, we'd love to hear them. Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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About the Author

Brenda CartwrightBrenda Cartwright is a seasoned interpreter, a master teacher, well known presenter, and author of several best selling sign language and interpreting textbooks from the RID Press. For 35 years Brenda was the Chair of the Sign Language Interpreter Program at Lansing Community College in Lansing, Michigan.

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