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Comment: Working for free pays dividends

Comment: Working for free pays dividends

Karena Batstone MSGD

Karena Batstone MSGD has started a new pro bono work website for garden designers – here she explains why working for free is good for you and your career

A career as a garden designer is a labour of love: stimulating and rewarding, for sure, but for most of us not particularly lucrative. So the idea of waiving payment altogether and working pro bono may fill you with horror. It shouldn’t.

And here’s why. Pro bono means for the good of the public – professional work undertaken voluntarily and without payment. I first stumbled across it as a newly qualified designer in my home town, Bristol. Walking between a couple of 1960s tower blocks close to where I live, I brushed past an ad stuck to a lamp post, which read: “Calling all green-fingered people. Come and make magic happen.”

The truth is, I was not particularly green-fingered, but I knew I could help with the vision, so I started work on plans and plasticine models (ah, the joys of pre-Vectorworks designing) proposing a grassy amphitheatre on a disused slope and large trees in wheeled containers to trundle around on some flat roofs.

In the course of the project, I got to know my neighbours well, and as a by-product I discovered a few things about myself: I am definitely not born to sit on committees. Pro bono work is not just about the warm, fuzzy feeling of doing some good. It strengthens networks, enhances public relations and can result in new prospects for paid work.

Garden designers tend to focus on residential work with few opportunities, bar the odd competition, for branching out. But by volunteering your services to a non-profit or charity, you will give your portfolio a lift and meet other design professionals such as architects, interior designers and lighting designers. If you hit it off, they will remember you when it comes to future paid projects.

Last summer, for example, I designed an installation for RIBA as part of Bristol Green Capital 2015. No one tramps the streets collecting 350 empty milk cartons (green caps only!) to customise into planters for a ‘flower shower’ expecting rich rewards. But two weeks later, directly as a result of meeting a new firm of architects at the BGC event, I was awarded a prestigious project to design a sky meadow for a new apartment development in central Bristol.

Self-promotion isn’t why I helped out on Bristol Green Capital, but you never know who is watching. More and more companies are hot on the ‘social premium’ in their hire of professionals: if you have done some good, they look good too.

But the benefit of pro bono work can be felt in more personal ways. For example, in 2012 I helped in the greening of Bristol’s Nelson Street, an unloved street of 1960s office blocks which was being used for the See No Evil street art festival. Using social media, we recruited a hall full of enthusiastic young volunteers to plant up old boots and create hanging moss balls. Not only was it fun and frenetic, but in mingling with the city’s young hipsters I fell back in love with my analogue camera and learnt to temper my antipathy towards beards.

Garden design intersects with all kinds of incredible innovation. It was while working on another freebie – a floating swimming pool proposal for Bristol harbour – that I learnt that our lighting scheme could be powered by urine! Move over flower power, pee power is where it’s at! Pro bono work can therefore be a personal learning experience as well as a shop front for your talent.

It’s a win-win situation, and that is why a group of us are developing Good to Grow, a Tinder-like service for matchmaking design professionals involved in space making with non-profit organisations and social enterprises. In signing up, participants will pledge to devote a small percentage of their time each year to pro bono work (a day a month, perhaps a Freeday Friday?) and in return will have the opportunity to connect with a non-profit project seeking a design partner.

Once the website is up and running, you will be able to advertise the services you are happy to offer, from brainstorming sessions and visualisations to design and management. We are also planning a Call the Expert service offered in one-hour slots.

I hope that you will register your interest and help to spread the love through the Good to Grow movement. Garden design is not something that just happens in private settings, but in our communities and streetscapes. Come on, let’s make magic happen.

To find out more about Good to Grow or register your interest, go to

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