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Pro Bono Barter

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"Foggy" Nelson: Your client, Mr. Lee; he made his first payment.
Matt Murdock: Oh, that's great. You should be very happy.
"Foggy" Nelson: Yeah, it's fantastic. He paid in fluke. Fluke is a fish, Matt. Did you know that? Because I sure as hell didn't.
Matt Murdock: Mr. Lee is a good man, and he... doesn't have a lot of money, and he goes fishing on the weekends, so I guess that's...
"Foggy" Nelson: Yeah, well, I go salsa dancing on the weekends, but I don't shake my ass to pay my phone bill, you know what I'm sayin'?

A character or business, often the protagonist, performs a service or supplies a good of reasonable demand, and expects a reasonable payment in return. In many cultures, particularly those that appear in works of fiction, "payment" means "money".

Unfortunately, not everyone who needs the character's goods or services can pay with money. In many cases, this is due to poverty; although there are other circumstances in which a potential client simply cannot (or will not) use standard currency. In these cases, the client will present a non-monetary gift to the character as a "payment" of sorts.

Sometimes the character does this willingly, as he or she is good-hearted and likes helping out those in need and/or has a familiar connection to the client. Other times, the character does this grudgingly or may attempt to avoid doing this altogether, possibly because of greed, or possibly because he or she is foreseeing his or her own impending poverty from accepting too many gifts instead of money. In still other situations, the character may flat-out refuse the gift and deny the service, or the character may prefer the gift over money, or the character may accept it because the person making the offer is powerful, crazy, and/or potentially dangerous.

This trope can also be Played for Laughs if the client offers the character something ridiculous and/or worthless.

The one thing that distinguishes a Pro Bono Barter from a regular barter is the pro bono; that is, the character accepting a gift instead of money is essentially providing a good or service for free, because he or she lives in a culture where bartering is uncommon or flat-out abnormal ("pro bono" is short for "Pro bono publico", Latin for "For the public good"). This is often the case even with items of high value, since the character may or may not have the ability (or the heart) to exchange the gift for money.

Compare Work Off the Debt, a much more specific trope in which a character must pay off a food bill by washing dishes or performing some other menial job around a restaurant, and Hospitality for Heroes, where someone noticing the good deed rewards the individual with whatever they can. Can also overlap with Food as Bribe.


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    Fan Works 
  • A Moon and World Apart: While the Lunar Republic operates mostly on a standard barter system (they work and receive what they need, with public services like the police and medical care not requiring any particular payment — the citizens get it automatically in return for the regular work they do), individuals can also build up personal credit via trading favors, or donate their time and skill in advance, to be called in later.

  • In Daredevil (2003), Matt Murdock is a defense attorney whose personal morals often lead him to work with the impoverished. Consequently, his clients are sometimes unable to afford his fees and will pay with goods instead. Murdock's partner, Foggy Nelson, complains about receiving fish instead of money from a client during an early scene, and their law office is stacked full of goods instead of law books, which somewhat hurts their professional image.
    Foggy: That place is gonna be crawling with people, rich people; people who pay their legal fees with money, not with fish, or with-with-with wheels of cheese, or with sports supplies! I'm gonna fill you in on a little secret, Matt. This doesn't look like a law office, okay? It looks like the set of goddamn Sanford and Son. Every time I walk in, I'm waiting for Lamont to come down the stairs!
  • This is the initial problem for Ford Fairlane, who constantly receives tacky (albeit valuable) gifts from clients who need his services as a Rock-n-Roll Detective. Rather strange in this instance, as Fairlane's clients are almost all successful rock stars and should have no problem making standard payments.
  • In Doc Hollywood, Michael J. Fox's character gets paid for a bit of doctoring... with a hog. He is seen walking around with it on a rope several times after that.
  • In A Cinderella Story, the diner manager Rhonda bribes a shop owner with "free breakfast for a month" so he'll keep the store open long enough for Sam to find a dance costume.

  • In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch accepts vegetables from Mr. Cunningham as payment for legal services.
  • This is standard operating procedure for the witches in Discworld:
    "Oh, I don't want payin'" said Granny
    "But maybe... if your wife's got any old clothes, p'raps, I'm a size twelve, black for preference, or bakes the odd cake, no plums, they gives me wind, or got a bit of old mead put by, could be, or p'raps you'll be killing a hog about now, best back's my favorite, maybe some ham, a few pig knuckles... anything you can spare really. No obligation".
    • They also encourage this in others as well, since a major role of Witch is to be a community leader taking care of the impoverished or those who fall through the cracks. Their payment may be that you give someone else food, or check in on them once a week. (It's also noted that it's one way to accept food (or gifts) they have no immediate need for- they "store it in other people", until they want a favor from the person that benefits.)
  • Rebuild World:
  • In The Rising of the Shield Hero, Naofumi always demands payment for saving others but frequently accepts non-monetary payments such as information or goods. After saving a poor town from being ruled by Motoyasu who, on Malty's advice, would institute a heavy toll on entering or leaving, Naofumi took a cart as payment so he'd have a way to transport goods more easily.
  • A Series of Unfortunate Events: The workers in the Lucky Smells Lumber Mill are paid in coupons. Which is exactly the same as being paid in nothing because all of the coupons are of the "Buy X, Get Y Free" kind, and the lumber mill is their only form of income.
  • In the biography The Animals Came In One By One, the veterinarian narrator talks about how, during the war, several cheating wives asked if he could abort their illegitimate children (reasoning that if he could do it for puppies/kittens/etc...). He refused them every time, but mentions that if they could've paid him in something other than money- for example, food for the animals he was boarding- his response might have been different.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Occasionally on the game show Deal or No Deal, a contestant will be offered something tangible that they or a family member wants in addition to money. As an example, one father was offered $35,000 and a pony for his young daughter, who wanted one more than anything in the world. The father took the deal.
  • At the start of season 2 of Daredevil, Nelson & Murdock has received a lot of new clients. Their clientele, unfortunately, are unable to pay in anything other than peach cobbler and pastries. Karen makes a point of informing Matt and Foggy that they're basically broke going this way, and Foggy makes a point of them needing clients who can actually pay them in money.
  • On Scrubs, Dr. Kelso talks about how his father was a doctor who would accept a handmade sweater or a bushel of turnips in lieu of payment from poor patients. Then he calls him a jackass.
  • At the beginning of the Firefly episode "Our Mrs. Reynolds," the crew is rewarded for stopping some bandits with trade goods, an apology... and, apparently, a wife for Mal.
    • In the episode "Heart of Gold," Jayne is reluctant to help out Inara's friend until:
    Jayne: Don't know 'em, don't care to.
    Mal: They're whores.
    Jayne: I'm in.
  • Justified had a dentist accepting tamales from a Mexican immigrant patient.
  • Nathaniel Fisher Sr. of Six Feet Under was, following his death, discovered by his sons to have accepted marijuana and a private room as payment for his funeral home services.
  • Once on Cake Boss, a client repainted the main work area at the bakery in exchange for one of Buddy's custom cakes.
  • On the Taiwanese television series Down with Love, Yu Ping offers free consulting as to a company as part of a plea bargain to keep her half-father from being sued.
  • Variations of this tend to pop up from time to time on Burn Notice. Michael Weston rarely accepts payment for his services, but has, on occasion, been known to accept gifts. Examples include covering a month's rent on his apartment, a car (admittedly useful) and a bag full of cell phones (also useful).
    • One reward came as a particularly pleasant surprise to him: a lifetime supply of yogurt.
  • In Picket Fences, defense attorney Wambaugh tells the story of one of his early cases where he successfully defended a woman from prostitution charges...and then she paid him in trade.

  • Doubly subverted in "Carter and Ferryman", a German children song (around 1900) featured e.g. in Die Sendung mit der Maus. The Ferryman asks for a piece out of every box as payment, which the carter happily agrees. When they are over, the carter pays the ferryman with hot air - the boxes are all empty. (The double subversion being that the ferryman is good-natured and laughingly says that with all that wind his ferry will now go doubly fast.)

    Mythology and Legends 
  • Johnny Appleseed was known to receive lodging and clothes as payment for his work, although this legend does come from a time when standard bartering was far more common.
  • In the Book of Genesis, Jacob falls in love with his cousin Rachel. In those days, brides were "purchased" from their fathers (or nearest male relatives) with (variously) land, precious metals, valuable cloth, livestock, etc. Without this payment, the marriage would not be valid, as marriage back then was primarily a business transaction. Jacob, however, had fled from his home after stealing his brother's inheritance, and left Canaan for Padan-Aram with little more than the clothes on his back. So he agrees that he'll work for her father Laban for seven years, unpaid, in exchange for Rachel's hand (and presumably the rest of her). Laban, however, decides to be greedy and switch her older sister Leah under the bridal veil. When Jacob confronts him, Laban explains that it's not the custom in Padan-Aram to marry off a younger sister before an older one...and that he'll give Jacob the right bride this exchange for another seven years of unpaid work. He winds up with an Unwanted Harem consisting of Leah and Rachel, plus their servant-girls Bilhah and Zilpah. Leah and Rachel convince him to leave Padan-Aram...and Laban.

    Tabletop Games 
  • Ogors from Warhammer: Age of Sigmar have very little concept of currency or wealth, caring for little beyond stating their hunger and looking impressively flashy. Due to this Ogor mercenaries, known as Maneaters, generally prefer their pay to take the form of particularly tasty food or ostentatious clothing.

    Video Games 
  • In The Simpsons Hit & Run, Homer will occasionally call for a car to pick him up with "Will you come and get me? I'll pay you in back rubs!"
  • In the Nancy Drew series, this trope often justifies extraneous puzzles and minigames. It's especially prevalent in Secret of the Old Clock, which is set during the Great Depression: mail recipients can't tip Nancy, so they offer things like nails or a glass of fresh milk.
  • The Followers of the Apocalypse (don't let the name fool you, they're basically secular Nice Guys) in Fallout: New Vegas mention that they get their food by providing medical services to local farmers.
  • After The Great Flood, quarantine and influx of Eldritch Abominations that plague Oakmont in The Sinking City, the American dollar is rendered useless by the citizens and have since gone to a barter system, bullets being used as the currency by the player.

    Web Original 

    Web Comics 
  • Massey Reynstein from Schlock Mercenary once raised a lawsuit against the government for the benefit of a fisherman whose boat was blown up by a trigger-happy SWAT team. He took a box of explosives for his trouble. And used them on the defence lawyers (which indirectly pays him in cash, for the bounty the Toughs have been authorized to collect on the Attorney Collective).
  • Unsounded (Chapter 9, Page 18) features the horrifying LP, specialized Cresce coins that have no rare metals and are magically gene-locked to ensure that only the people who earned the money can spend it, with the magics and production fully controlled by the royalty. The end result is that all Crescean citizens are economically enslaved. Stockyard claims that he has become the city's new mafia by opening a brothel because there is no other illegitimate way for the citizens of his town to earn real money.

    Western Animation 
  • Pops from Regular Show pays everyone in lollipops because he thinks candy is acceptable currency. In one episode this results in the park getting audited.
  • An early episode of Family Guy showed Peter attempting to pay for services with pieces of string.
  • On an episode of The Simpsons, Bart works as a sweeper at a barbershop. His payment turns out to be an envelope of hair clippings. He asks the barber "You're paying me in hair? Are you insane?" The barber just nods and laughs maniacally.
  • On Goof Troop, Pete pays Max and PJ for shoveling snow at his paperclips. Max and PJ are not amused.
  • On the TaleSpin episode "The Road To Macademia", Baloo and Louie save the princess of Macademia and expect a big reward for it. All they get is the shipment of nuts they came to pick up in the first place.
  • In Avatar: The Last Airbender Sokka takes an odd job, and rather than getting paid in coin as he was expecting, he got handed a large, wet, dead fish.
  • Standardized currency in the form of clam shells is featured in Droners, but some goods are more easily obtained with a good old goods-for-goods barter. And then there's Paroan Shorescrubbers' auctions : You break the seller's drone ? You get what they sell. They wreck yours ? Too bad : the parts are not yours anymore.

    Real Life 

  • In cultures where barter is not the norm, payment in non-monetary items is much more likely to occur with professionals working in rural and/or farming areas.
    • During the Great Depression, many families paid for things through the barter system. IE a dozen eggs for a doctor to do your yearly check-up.
  • Some of the designers/developers on Clients from Hell have been offered payments in unconventional units.
  • The Home Shopping Network was born when founder Bud Paxton was a radio station manager. One of the station's advertisers didn't have the money to settle their bill, so they paid in... can openers. Desperately needing the cash instead, one of their personalities hawked the can openers on the air and managed to quickly sell through the entire lot, thus giving Paxton the seed of an idea for a new business.
  • The Diggers, a 1960s nonviolent anarchist/radical group congruent with but not identical with Hippies, believed that money should be dispensed with altogether and replaced with trade, barter or giveaways.note  We're surrounded by abundant amounts of stuff, but the money requirement keeps people from having the stuff. Dispense with money and distribute stuff as needed. They had free stores — like thrift shops but everything was given away or traded — gave away still-good food thrown away by grocery stores, and put on plays illustrating their beliefs. Peter Coyote was a Digger.
  • There is a mobile app called Simbi, where people can trade goods and services in exchange for what they need, instead of buying those goods and services.


Video Example(s):


Oakmont's Barter System

After the Flood, quarantine and influx of Eldritch Abominations that plague Oakmont, the American dollar is rendered useless by the citizens and have since gone to a barter system, bullets being used as the currency by the player.

How well does it match the trope?

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Example of:

Main / ProBonoBarter

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