Pro bono interpreting guidelines – Setton & Dawrant

The following is taken, without permission, from Chapter 11 of Robin Setton & Andrew Dawrant’s wonderful book, Conference Interpreting – A complete course. Please go and buy the whole thing that I might be forgiven for using this extract here!

Pro bono interpreting

3.5 Pro bono work 

Many interpreters frequently work on a pro bono basis (as unpaid volunteers) for organizations with limited resources and/or working for a good cause. This is admirable and a valuable service, but is open to abuse – you may be exploited, and risk taking legitimate work away from colleagues – so some caution is required. The basic recognized criteria that justify offering pro bono services are: is not-for-profit activities where employers are dependent on donations and goodwill; a worthy humanitarian cause. Pro bono work obviously provides good opportunities for beginners to get experi-ence — but not at the cost of responsibility to the profession. Angela Keil, at the time of writing president of AIIC, provides the following useful summary of guiding principles for pro bono work (on*)

Pro bono work: best practices

• Agreement to work on a volunteer basis is as binding as a paid contract. 

• You should offer the same quality as for a paid contract. 

• Working and technical conditions should be the same as usual (team strengths, lan-guage combinations and working hours) – this is essential for satisfactory performance. 

• It is recommended that the volunteer interpreter complete a contract form with the beneficiary, indicating that no fees are being charged, possibly indicating the amount of fees the interpreter is willing to forego. 

• Say no to ‘pro bono tourism. In the event of missions away from home involving travel and subsistence expenses, the volunteer interpreter should first try to ensure that there are no interpreters available at the conference venue, before accepting the mission – it would make no sense, and would certainly create bad feeling, to volunteer your services while incurring travel costs that would be sufficient to pay local interpreters a regular fee to perform the same service. 

Professionals offer some additional tips online: 

1. To be sure that the request for pro bono services is legitimate, check the list of donors or sponsors, since “it is sometimes surprising to see that an organization claims to have no funds available for professional interpreters but counts several blue-chip companies among its sponsors” (Angie, Germany), or is otherwise clearly not dependent on donations and goodwill (as may be apparent, for example – to take an example from our own experience – if they have spent much more on the dinner banquets than it would have cost to pay the interpreters). 

2. Tax or other regulations in some countries may require that the service is de-clared (for example as a gift), so special procedures may be necessary – for example, invoicing for the full amount with VAT, paying VAT to the tax office and transferring the net amount back to the organization, which should then issue a certificate allowing you to deduct the amount from your taxable income. Another advantage of actually invoicing and receiving a fee (before donating it back) is to show that what is being donated is a real professional service.

* the Q&A website is (unfortunately no longer available. AIIC however maintains an archived version)