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I’m a big believer in charitable giving. I think it’s fantastic to give to good causes. I’d highly encourage going out of your way to donate to organizations you believe in.

Where things get a little fuzzy is when someone asks you to work for free “because charity.” Sometimes it’s a non-profit, other times it’s a for-profit business masquerading as a non-profit. While they’re making money and paying their staff, they hope you’ll work for free because they say they give “proceeds” to charity.

Why is it that their accountants, organizers, and managers get paid even when good causes are involved, but art is treated as a hobby? Why are you expected to work for free?

Artists are often exploited because they enjoy what they do. Businesses or organizations often try to “pay” you in exposure and many creative people end up working for free when they should be compensated.

Don’t get me wrong, there are certainly times where it is appropriate and right to work for free. I think it’s fantastic to donate your services and your skills!

It sounds stingy to even talk about not doing free work when charities benefit, but the situation isn’t always so clear and people are often taken advantage of.

We navigate this sensitive issue and discuss when to be altruistic and when to be wary. We answer the question: Should you always work for free if a good cause benefits?

Show Notes
  • 03:14 Sean: We’ve talked about doing pro-bono work before but today we’re asking the question: should artists work for free just because a business gives to charity (Related: e068 Two Prices: Full Price & Free)? The reason I’m bringing this up is because I was recently asked to work for free. This has happened a lot actually but since it happened recently, it brought up the topic for me again. Basically, a business contacted me that wants me to create artwork for them for free. They have a subscription model where they send products with various artists’ artwork on the products and they send them at certain intervals to their members who pay for a subscription.
  • 04:34 This sounds crazy, right? They’re making money, they’re getting subscription revenue from customers by selling products artists made for free. No one is going to have any qualms about this but the confusing part for some people is that this business says they give proceeds to charity. That’s admirable and I advocate giving to charity. It’s a great thing to do but it muddies things. It makes you think, “Well, it is for a good cause.”

Should You Always Work for Free if a Good Cause Benefits?

  • 05:24 Ben: There’s an exchange of value happening, even when you’re doing pro-bono work. Let’s say you’re an artist with your own store on your own platform where you sell your work, and you personally research charities to which you would like to give and you give your own personal income to those charities. In a way, you did that art you’re selling and making money off it of but also, to the degree which you’re giving, you’re giving part of that away. There’s still an exchange of value there and it sounds like this business is positioning themselves as the intermediate between the artist and the charity. They’re cutting out the work of having to sell it on your platform, researching what charities to give to, and facilitating that transaction. I can see how that can be attractive but it’s still an exchange of value.
  • 06:51 Sean: The other thing that feels a little bit off-color here is this is purely a business, it’s not a 501c3. Even if it was a total non-profit, the people that work there still need to be paid.

You can’t go to your landlord and pay your rent with good vibes!

You still have to survive and get groceries or gas. Even a non-profit will give their people a salary.

  • 07:45 Ben: There’s this misconception that because someone says they’re a non-profit or 501c3, then that’s indicative of the kind of work and giving they’re doing. You can’t let that be the determining factor for you. You have to look deeper than that. All of the distinctions of partnerships, sole proprietorships, S corporations, and 501c3s are all for tax purposes and there are different perimeters that govern those different business types.
  • 08:33 You have to dig past the facade of what their business type is and treat it as an entity or an individual. If it was a single person, it doesn’t matter what their name is, what are they doing? How are they handling that money? There are rules about how much you have to disclose and I believe non-profits have more disclosure requirements than a regular businesses. If I was a regular business and I wanted to position myself as someone who gives to charity, to my paying members as part of the value I’m offering, I don’t care what the governing rules are. I would want to be open, honest, and disclose as much as possible so I can be transparent.
  • 09:33 Sean: I’m not going to name names in this show but I would encourage you to go to the websites of non-profit organizations you know of and businesses that you assume are non-profits, scroll down to the bottom of the footer, and see if it says 501c3 because there are well-known businesses that masquerade as non-profits. They publicly campaign that they give to charities but they never actually say how much. Sometimes they’ll tell you a part of what they give but they are a for-profit business. They make millions of dollars and even if they gave everything but the salaries of the people running the business, you don’t know what those salaries are.
  • 10:33 You don’t know what they’re paying the people on the inside, even if they’re not making a bunch of extra money. Also, in the case of a business that’s trying to get you to work for free and they say, “Well, maybe we’re not a non-profit but all of our proceeds go to charity. We pay ourselves to run it, of course.” Why do you pay yourself? They have to pay themselves because the business doesn’t run without them. Why do you give yourself money? Why don’t you just do it for free? They have to be paid because what they’re doing is valuable.

Just because something benefits charity, doesn’t mean an artist’s work is not valuable.

  • 11:23 You don’t have a business model or a product without the work of the artist. When the stuff you’re selling to your paying members so you can give to charity features artwork created by artists, that is value. Otherwise, you’ve got a blank product that no one is interested in.
  • 11:56 Ben: If you’re that type of business, you’re trying to sell two things: memberships and the fact you’re giving proceeds. The value that the members get from subscribing is the quality of the art and you use this ambiguous term “give proceeds,” to sell to the heart. People want to give and you’re not only selling the act of giving, you’re selling the facilitation of that gift. On one hand, you have the quality of the art and think about that when you’re sourcing the art. Is the quality of what you’re offering your subscribers going to suffer from getting free artwork?

Exposure Is Not a Form of Payment

  • 13:11 Sean: It might make your whole campaign less effective and less beneficial to charities as a result because you skimped on the artwork and you tried to pay people with exposure.
  • 13:22 Ben: If this was your model, the value you’re offering the artists is facilitating their gift. They’re gift is whatever their art is worth and that translates into what you’re giving to charity. If you’re selling that value to the artist, why wouldn’t you disclose every line item you possible could to demonstrate what they’re giving to is a worthy cause? Why wouldn’t you make it crystal clear to remove all doubt so that the artist could decide if they had extra time to contribute to a cause they believe in? Being open and completely honest is how you could get valuable work for free but really, you should just pay for it.
  • 14:52 Sean: Think of it this way: when you’re driving your volunteer team to a charity event, you fill up the car at a gas station, you get your receipt, and you give it to the accounting team to make sure it gets paid. They’re going to make sure that the funds people donate are going to cover the cost of getting you to the venue. That’s just part of it—of course you have to pay for gas and buy t-shirts! It’s a no-brainer for all of these other things, except the art. People don’t value the art or design. They think you enjoy doing this thing so you would love the opportunity to get it in front of people because that’s such a privilege. Part of the generous offer I received was that I get to choose which URL I get to have on the work I’m doing for free.

There’s no such thing as free work because there’s always an exchange of value happening.

  • 16:06 Ben: The value you’re offering the artist for providing their work is facilitating that gift, which you’re being ambiguous about. Even if you were being crystal clear, do you honestly think that the value you’re providing them by facilitating that gift is equal to the value their providing you by giving you their art? Many artists are going to find it very difficult to justify that transaction, so you’re already fighting an uphill battle. Then, if you want to factor in the exposure piece, how can you substantiate that?
  • 17:03 In almost every case, you can’t substantiate the amount of exposure you’re going to give someone. It’s your audience, it’s not the artist’s audience so it doesn’t matter how much exposure you give them. Your audience belongs to you and ultimately, you might able to send them a few clicks on their website but it’s not going to result in meaningful relationships for that artist. If you’re a business that’s trying to position yourself this way, you’ve got to take that into account when you’re trying to make that transaction happen.
  • 17:44 Sean: We’re speaking to the artists and speaking to businesses or organizations here. To the organizations: treat this seriously. Treat design like anything else that matters in your business or helps it run. Do you pay the people on your team so they can run this business or organization? Do you pay for gas or office materials? Art is so much more valuable than those things because without it, you don’t have anything compelling that will grab people. You should be going out of your way to make sure they feel really well compensated because that’s going to come through. Think about it—if your mission is so admirable, when you offer compensation, don’t you think the artist would be compelled to very likely give out of the goodness of their heart? I wouldn’t be surprised at all if the artist said they would love to do it for free.
  • 19:06 Ben: Think about the value you’re providing to your members too. You’re not only providing the value of the art but you’re providing them with the value of knowing their memberships are going toward charity. You’ve got to talk about the work you’re doing and be clear about it. The more value you can provide to your members, the more you can charge them, which means the more you can give to charity. The way you provide more value on the artistic side is by getting high-quality artists. What you’re describing sounds like making charity a commodity. There are good intentions but I want to give the benefit of the doubt and say these other aspects weren’t taken into account.
  • 20:14 Sean: In the chat room, Cory Miller says, “I don’t see ‘For-Profit’ or ‘Nonprofit,’ I just see a potential client,” which makes total sense to me. To you, a non-profit is a client just as to a gas station, a car that pulls up to the pump is a customer. You’ve got to do work so that means it’s a client or a customer. We are all for giving to charity and that’s something we do of our own volition but it feels wrong for an organization to come to us and doesn’t value our work while it masquerades under a charity front. It’s like they expect you to throw all of your professionalism out the window because charity was mentioned. Well, that’s not how it works.
  • 21:18 Part of the message I received said, “Would you be interested in participating? Excellent! Fill out the attached template to submit your artwork.” The first part—the question—makes sense but I’m bothered by the rest. It was so presumptuous that you would be privileged to participate in this event where you’ll be compensated with exposure, because some charity somehow gets proceeds that aren’t defined.
  • 22:05 Ben: I like the spirit of that approach. There’s a lot of stuff out there to support the idea that when you’re bold in asking something and even go so far as to make assumptions, that you’re more likely to get what you’re after but you have to be able to back that up. In my opinion, this is a bold assumption with nothing to back it up. If you’re so sure that the artist would want to work with you, think about it from the artist’s side. Based on what you’re communicating and offering, how certain could you be that they want to work for you for free?
  • 23:04 If you think about it objectively and you look at how you’re communicating, you’ll see that question and following statement reaches far beyond the assurances you’re giving the artist. You haven’t even developed a solid relationship with them. It would be like me going up to Rachel when we were just friends, before we were trying to figure out if we liked each other, and saying, “Hey, Rachel. Do you want to marry me and have six kids together? Excellent!” before she even has a chance to answer.
  • 24:03 Sean: You have to court people! You’ve got to go through the process. Ask them if they’re interested and if they are, let them reply back, then go back and forth a few times. It should be something you give, if you want to give, not something someone takes from you. If I said, “Hey Cory, I’m going to take this money out of your wallet because I’m going to give it to charity. I’m going to force you to work because we’re going to do it for charity,” that wouldn’t be valuing his contribution.
  • 24:48 Ben: Even if they’re not forcing anyone to do anything, it comes across as very forward and somewhat forceable. Someone might feel like they’re up against a wall and it’s expected of them. It might feel like it should be a no-brainer to jump on this opportunity.

When Should You Work for Free?

  • 25:27 Sean: You should work for free for organizations that you believe in. Do free work for organizations that are doing good work and that you want to see do even more good work. I think donating to charity is a wonderful thing. Even if an organization that benefits charity wants to hire you and they obviously value you, be willing to do it for free. It’s totally different. It changes everything when it’s you giving. I always say best friends pay full price, right? You don’t go to your friend and say, “Hey, can I get the cheap deal because we’re buds?” You say, “I value what you do and I want to pay the full amount,” and let the friend say, “No, I want to do this for you.” Don’t presume!
  • 26:43 It’s the same with any kind of client work, whether charity is in the picture or not, like when a client comes to you trying to close the deal in one email. There’s no preliminary discussion or professional back-and-forth and it’s very obvious all they want is quantity, not quality. They’re going to dozens, if not hundreds, of designers and they’re giving them the same thing. “Hey, here’s what we’re about. We want you to work with us. Here’s what we want you to do. We’ve attached the contract, just sign it.” They try to close the whole thing right then and doing that is going to get desperate people. Just like those scammy landing pages, where the salesman has an auto-playing video with no progress bar and there’s a “Buy Now! Order Now!” button that only appears at a certain time.
  • 27:47 They’re trying to go through the whole cycle of establishing trust with someone, seeming relatable, building credibility, pitching to them, and then closing all at once. Someone will be on the cusp of the magical seventh time of hearing about this and will close the deal so to them, it works (Related: e153 The Magic of 7). You send out a form letter to a bunch of artists and you get five or ten of them to do it, then it seems to work. Meanwhile, the other 90% is struggling with it. It feels weird and off but they feel bad because it’s charity. They’re thinking, “Maybe I should be doing this.” To the businesses doing this: you need to court people. Stop trying to shortcut this. Stop trying to give your whole pitch by saying, “Would you be interested in participating? Excellent!”

Businesses that benefit charity need to stop presuming and start courting the artist.

  • 28:59 Ben: Maybe it’s because you don’t know any better but the kind of long-term quality you’re going to be able to do is going to suffer if you’re not building relationships with people. If I heard that a friend of a friend of mine buys a bunch of food every Friday and goes downtown to give it to the homeless and he asked me, “Hey, can I have $5? I’m going to feed the homeless,” it would be much more effective if we had developed a relationship first. Then I would say something like, “Hey, are you going downtown again this Friday?” to which he says, “Yeah, I am. Just like I do every Friday,” and I would give him $20. Now, the $5 he might have been able to get from me has now turned into $20 because I have a relationship with him and I’m familiar with the kind of work he’s doing. He’s going to do it whether I give to him or not.
  • 30:44 Sean: Someone who runs a business might have misheard that and thought, “People have goodness in their hearts and they might give to charity whether I pay them or not, so I might as well get them to help out and not pay them.”
  • 31:03 Ben: I want to highlight the long-term mentality here. When you’re building relationships with people, that’s a long-term approach. When you’re sending out a form letter and trying to close the deal in one interaction, that’s a short term approach and you’re going to have some success at that but at the expense of what you would be able to do long-term. I’m not even talking about waiting years to see if it pans out and break even. I’m saying you’re probably going to reach the same level of success doing it the right way as you would doing it the wrong way within a relatively short amount of time. Then, you would be able to surpass that by many factors because of the way you’re investing in people and your consistent demonstration of the work you’re doing.
  • 32:00 Sean: The takeaway for artists is: organizations should be willing to come through your process and pay you accordingly. I want to make it really clear that we’re not saying not to give to charity. We’re not saying don’t do free work for charity, we’re saying that’s something you should be giving.

You should be giving to organizations that value your work and aren’t trying to take from you out of entitlement.

  • 32:43 They’re not feeling like you owe them or they’re compensating you adequately by saying you can put a URL on your work and get exposure. I don’t agree with building your business on the backs of artists that work for free by exploiting their good will.
  • 33:10 Ben: As a business, just because you’re demonstrating the good work you’re doing, doesn’t mean you’re going to get free work from artists. You should expect to pay full value for their work.
  • 33:26 Sean: Even non-artists: expect to pay your plumber and to pay for your gas.
  • 33:32 Ben: That’s what you should expect to do and then maybe every once in a while, because of your clear communication about how that gift is being used, someone might be willing to give to that for free.
  • 33:54 Sean: Transparency, consistency, and commitment to valuing peoples’ work and contributions is what’s important. Just like the people on your team get a cut that isn’t in the proceeds to charity, value peoples’ contributions. Once you have a reputation like that, people will want to contribute. Like you said, it’s the longer-term way of thinking about it. Do you want to have an organization that exists for a long period of time?

When you compensate people accordingly and show them that you value them, they’ll go out of their way to give back.

  • 35:00 If anyone is listening to this that happens to know or later on figures out who I’m talking about, I just want to say that I have complete respect in you as a person—the listener and the person running an organization like this. They might just be naive. They might have seen someone else’s model from the outside and saw that it worked but didn’t understand exactly how and they’re trying to replicate that. Maybe they don’t even realize that it’s not respectful of the artist. Maybe they believe that they’re doing the artist a favor and giving them an opportunity to give to charity.
  • 35:48 I’m not trying to condemn them, I’m trying to bring awareness to this issue and help them establish an organization that’s going to last a long time. Otherwise, you’re breeding ill will, even if it’s not obvious on the surface. You’re breeding a sub-level culture that might not manifest itself in the short-term but later on you’re going to see artists leaving and boycotting. It’s gradually going to start to show in their behavior and their words. Maybe someone is doing it and they don’t realize the issues with it—that’s my intention with this show. I’m not bringing this up to say you’re horrible person.
  • 36:44 Ben: There are so many conventions that exist of the wrong way to do it that are working for people. If you’re a person considering using a similar business model, I want to encourage you to sit down and think objectively about this. Notice that’s the way they’re doing it but is that really the best way? Ask yourself if you’re valuing the people participating in the work we’re doing and if you’re communicating clearly what you’re doing. Are you being transparent enough?
  • 37:39 Sean: Communication and transparency is huge. Obscurity will bring about doubt in people. You won’t see it because it happens inside of people. You want to go out of your way to be overly clear. If you’re a non-profit, put 501c3 on your website and make it obvious. If you’re not, explain why. Make it very clear that you’re not non-profit and explain why. Explain exactly what “proceeds” mean.
  • 38:09 Ben: There are guidelines out there about what you’re required to disclose and some businesses only meet the requirements and go no further. What if you were different? What if you went as far beyond the requirement as you could because you’re interested in meeting your personal definition of full-disclosure? Because you’re interested in what you’re audience’s definition of full-disclosure is? Don’t let the rules someone made for disclosure govern the values with which you operate.

What you create is valuable and you should be compensated for that.

  • 38:56 Sean: It’s valuable to the people who get to enjoy it and the people who want to use it with whatever motives. Whether it’s benefiting their business exclusively, charity, partially their staff and partially charity, or wherever it goes, it is value that you’re creating which you should be compensated for. You should be the one to give up that compensation, if you so choose.