Sara’s Surgery: How to deal with Pro Bono requests

Sara’s Surgery is a new series of blogs, social media content and the occasional newsletter in which I will be answering some of the most common questions that I am asked by members of the Actually community. 

If you have a question that you’d like me to tackle, please email talk@actually.world using the subject line: Sara’s Surgery. 


Dear Sara,

I have just spent nearly two hours trying to craft the perfect email to justify my decision to say ‘No’ to taking on a project that a friend has asked me to do for free for her. In the end, I’ve said ‘Yes’ – again – because I felt so awful saying no. And I can already feel the resentment kicking in because I know that this project is going to take me away from working on my business. How do I deal with pro bono requests like this without upsetting the person asking or feeling like I am a terrible person for saying ‘No’?

Resentful of Rotherham


Dear Resentful,

Ah yes….the curse of the pro bono request! A seemingly perpetual challenge – particularly for purpose-led entrepreneurs and aspiring impact business owners. 



Let’s start with mindset. Because what I know to be true is that our discomfort with saying ‘No’ to requests for free or heavily discounted support comes from our beliefs and the stories we tell ourselves about our work and our value. 

Check to see whether any of the following beliefs or stories resonate with you: 

    • Doing good should be it’s own reward. 
    • This work is so easy for me / in flow for me / fulfilling for me, it seems greedy to charge for it too. 
    • This work is so easy for me that it can’t also be valuable – because only HARD work is worth paying for. 
    • My purpose is to be of service to [insert your people] whether they can afford to pay me or not. 

And, of course, there are hundreds more – beliefs and stories that boil down to this: we believe we must sacrifice our personal and financial wellbeing in order to be of service to others. 

I could rant and rave about how unhelpful these beliefs are. 

I could use logic and analysis to disprove every one of them. 

I could ask you tough coaching questions designed to support you to ‘Aha’ moments of realisation that lead you to give up these beliefs. 

But this blog is not the place for that. 

Instead I ask you to reflect on the beliefs and stories that you have running that may be making it difficult for you to say ‘No’ to pro bono requests – and then take that to your coach (or a good buddy) for discussion. 

If you’re a member of JFDI why not bring it to the next monthly group coaching session and have Team Actually coach, Sharon Strickland-Clark, talk you through it? 

I want to focus here on two other things:

    1.  The reason you SHOULDN’T be beating yourself up about this
    2.  Some practical advice on what to DO about it. 

It’s NOT your fault

When it comes to turning down pro bono work, I don’t want you to compound the anxiety you feel with a side-helping of self-flagellation. I don’t want you to slip into another unhelpful belief – that your inability or unwillingness to say ‘No’ comes from your mindset so somehow it’s your fault

To do so is to confuse ‘fault’ and ‘responsibility’: two entirely different things. 

As an adult, it is your responsibility to consider your beliefs and stories and to address them. 

But it is not your fault that you have these beliefs in the first place. 

Instead, I invite you to consider where they came from. 

Let me give you a clue. Culture. Society. Patriarchy. 

In our society, we are implicitly taught that work that is of service to others has no real value. We underpay our nurses, teachers, social workers, carers, charity workers and others who work ‘in service’ to others. We rely on their willingness to do unpaid overtime, to keep on giving until they are on their knees. We internalise the message that being of service to others is less important, less valuable than work that is focussed on ‘generating wealth’ like banking. 

And if you are a woman, and your work is ‘of service’ to others, then our patriarchal society likes to twist the knife on that belief a little further. Just to be sure you get the message. Work that is traditionally done by women is consistently under-valued and under-paid. Nurses are predominantly women. Teachers. Care workers. Social workers. Cleaners. Part-time workers. All vastly underpaid and under-valued. All traditionally regarded as ‘women’s work’. 

So by all means, take personal responsibility for processing and letting go of the beliefs that hold you back but do not berate yourself for having them to start with. Instead, get angry about how society has brainwashed you – and allow that anger to fortify your courage and conviction to do the work. 


Practical advice

Now that you’ve explore your beliefs, correctly identified the source of these beliefs and thereby avoided making the mistake of blaming yourself…what can you DO about the requests for pro bono support?

Well, I am all about inspired action so here’s what I suggest:

1. Based on your principles (values), your priorities in terms of your business and the amount of money you want to generate in the time you have available for work – decide now about how much pro bono work you are happy and willing to take on each week or month. Let’s say, for this example, that you decide on 8 hours a month.

2. Make this an official part of how you operate. Have a system for recording your time spent on pro bono work (even if it is just a post-it note next to your PC!). Consider including reference to your ‘Pro Bono policy’ on your website or doing an occasional social media post about it so that your community are aware.

3. When somebody asks you to take on a free or heavily discounted piece of work – even if it is ‘just’ a job that would take you 30 minutes – ask yourself: ‘Do I have any pro bono hours left this month?’ If you have time left in your pro bono allocation – and you want to do the work – then say yes.

 However, if all of your time that month has been spoken for then say: 

“Thank you for asking. I get a lot of requests for this kind of work and I am happy to help when I can – so I have set aside a certain amount of time each month for pro bono or discounted work. My hours for this month are fully allocated but I could pick this up for you next month if that would work for you.”

If they insist that it is urgent and needs to be done this month, then you say: 

“I understand this is urgent. As I don’t have any pro bono time left this month, I could take this on as paid client work. My charge out rates are [insert your standard rates].”

If they say they cannot afford to pay your rates, you say: 

“I appreciate that you don’t have the resources to pay me for my time. As I don’t have any pro bono time to offer you, I suggest….” 

And point them towards some free resources that they may find useful or introduce them to someone else who might be able to help. Make sure that this person is happy to have this kind of work referred! 

By the way, it’s amazing to me how many people ‘realise’ that the work they thought was urgent isn’t in fact quite so pressing when they have to pay for it! All of a sudden it CAN wait until next month after all. 

And finally, dear Resentful, remember – don’t be resentful of them for asking. You are responsible for saying ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ and for how you feel about it. Once you’ve made that decision and communicated it to them – let it go. And remember – by the same token – that how they feel about your decision is their responsibility, not yours. 

I hope this helps. 

Big love




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week I wrote a newsletter that caused more people to unsubscribe from my list than almost anything I have ever written before. I'm not concerned - clearly they are not my people - but I thought I'd share it here so you can tell me: would this cause YOU to unsubscribe?


"Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, except backwards and in high heels."

I remember the first time I heard that quote.

I was in my teens. I laughed.

Then as I began to think seriously about my career, my Mum explained to me that to be a successful career woman meant working twice as hard as a man to be considered half as good (and paid half as much).

I was in my early twenties. I thought she was exaggerating.

After I burnt out for the second time, I went to a conference and listened to a passionate and eloquent woman - who has subsequently become a great friend - explain something that should have been utterly obvious to me: that our entire cultural paradigm is based on structures set up by men and for men.

I was in my forties. And I cried.

Because it is exhausting having to don your Superwoman cape every day to ‘compete’ in the workplace.

As a single woman, I didn’t have to juggle work with family.

As a white, middle-class, cis-gendered, heterosexual and mainly able-bodied woman, I wasn’t dealing with the raft of intersectional prejudices beyond your average, everyday sexism.

But I was still exhausted.

And it wasn’t just because the systems that we work within weren’t designed for women but for men who had stay-at-home wives doing all of the work in the home.

It’s because for me - as for so many women - every day was and is a balancing act.

Every day is a tightrope walk between safety and danger; between being listened to and dismissed; between familiarity and harassment; between authenticity and playing the game.

Every day is a fight to be seen, to be heard, to be respected, to be autonomous, to be considered, to be valued, to be safe.

Every day.

In the workplace, in our social spaces, in our homes, in our politics, in our media.


This week my friend and client Harriet Waley-Cohen shared a post about this on LinkedIn. I’m going to share a section of her post here because she has put this so much more eloquently than I could:

"Sometimes it amazes me that there isn't a massive uprising.

Women are fed up of being objectified and judged on our looks, and only respected by how fu*&able we are deemed to be.

We are exhausted by feeling unsafe everywhere we go and watching our backs.

We are exasperated with not being paid the same, of our careers, choices and finances being marginalised because of caring expectations.

We are in despair about our allegations against powerful men being ignored because these men are too valuable to be held to account.

We are done with being told our tone of voice is the bloody problem, that we are too emotional.

We have had enough of not being able to trust the police or the legal system, and of people saying 'innocent until proven guilty' when the stats for prosecutions are laughably low and we all know most rapists never face any real consequences.

We are fed up of being told that it's not all men, because we never said it was, and it hurts to see so few men actively working towards making things better."

There has been an outpouring of grief, support and righteous anger in the comments on Harriet’s post. Of course there has. Because this is nearly every woman’s lived experience. And it is not OK.

I have written about these issues before in this newsletter. In the wake of the Sarah Everard murder and after the US Supreme Court struck down Roe v Wade. And there’s a part of me that didn’t want to write about this again. A part of me was concerned that you - my wonderful community - would grow bored of me ‘ranting on’ about this issue. A part of me that feared being judged or dismissed.

And that’s exhausting too, right?

The constant self-censorship. The constant voice in my head telling me that I can’t say this, shouldn’t write about that, mustn’t be too emotional, too strident, too ‘shouty’.

Well, in the nicest possible sense: f*&k that.

I am in my fifties now and as tired as some people may be of hearing me talk about these things, trust me I am WAY more tired of still having to talk about them. But until there is equity, it is up to every one of us to keep ‘banging on’.

And we need to do more than rant, we need to ACT.

Because here’s the thing, whatever your gender, you can either be an ally or you can be complicit in the problem. Please choose to be an ally. Here are three things you can do:

  1. Support people like Harriet when they share publicly about these issues. This kind of content often attracts trolls and the ‘not all men’ brigade - and it can be overwhelming to have to do all the rebuttal yourself. Another friend and client - the fabulous Stephanie Aitken, also did a post this week on a related topic and spent many hours having to deal with trolls in the comments. Help them.


  1. Call out misogyny, sexism, harassment, prejudice and bigotry when you see it - and when you feel safe to do so. I’m not advocating that you intervene when doing so would put you in real physical danger. But if a colleague makes an off-colour remark; if a family member behaves in a way that is inappropriate; if a friend displays ignorance, aggression or bias: name it. Don’t just smile and secretly roll your eyes. Don’t dismiss it. Don’t be afraid to be ‘awkward’. Have the conversation.


  1. Engage the next generation. Several of the commenters on Harriet’s post talked about children watching violent porn. They shared stories of how boys’ attitudes to girls are in some cases worse now than they were when I was a teen. The murder of Elianne Andam this week makes it clear just how important it is to speak to our children about these issues. Talk to the young people in your life. Find out about their experiences. Give them a safe space to explore these issues. And educate them about respect and equity. If we are going to break this cycle, this is VITAL work. Don’t shy away from it.  

There is so much more that we could all be doing but this would be an amazing start!

OK. Rant over, for today.

I’m not promising I won’t come back to this again.

My most fervent wish is that there will come a day when it won’t be necessary.

I hope to see that day in my lifetime.

My biggest fear is that I will not.






I think that will do for now - I do hope it has been helpful!

Big love