You Can’t Do It All For Free

I have a number of friends who are professional musicians.  Some have made it to the big time, and some make a living, but are not household names.  Some live in large metropolitan areas, others live in small towns and mid-sized cities.  Many of them, particularly those who perform to feed themselves and their families, share a common complaint.  They are often asked to perform for free, whether by businesses (bars) or by nonprofit organizations (for fundraising events).  They are often told it will give them better exposure to the public and will lead to paying jobs in the future.  It rarely does.

When I first decided to change careers and enter the nonprofit development field, I was advised by many that I should volunteer my skills and services for local organizations to build my reputation in the nonprofit community.  I had already gained a great deal of my fundraising knowledge and honed my skills as a Board member and volunteer, but it sounded like a good idea, so I joined a couple committees and a board to put that knowledge and those skills to practical use.  I worked on projects and reached out to donors, and even initiated my blog as a tool for serving one organization, all in hope of showing my stuff and landing a paid position.

When I started applying for positions, and landed some interviews with HR Managers for these organizations, I discussed my skills and the experience that I gained from my volunteer opportunities.  The HR professionals often smiled but then told me that I did not have the experience they were seeking, but then offered more volunteer opportunities within their organizations.  One or two organizations even offered me seats on their Boards of Directors.  When I asked if these opportunities would lead to paid opportunities, they couldn’t or wouldn’t say.

When I decided to return to my home town to care for my elderly parents, I arranged an interview with an organization for a Development Director position that was open.  They set the interview at a time that would make me drive nearly nonstop from my former home and give me enough time to put my possessions in temporary storage.  I drove cross country in a little over two days, put my things in a storage unit, and then in a state of exhaustion, had my interview.  They didn’t hire me.

The other day, I received an email from one of that organization’s Board members asking me if I would voluntarily help them with a fundraising event.  I haven’t responded to the request yet, and I am not sure how I will respond.

Since I have started my blog, which I am not paid for writing, I have received dozens of requests for my services.  Some people ask for advice, and sometimes I will freely share my thoughts and ideas.  Others have asked me to raise money for their organizations without offering remuneration.  That I will not do.  If you want me to raise money for your charity, you will need to pay my fee.  It is only fair.

I can certainly appreciate what my musician friends, and other professionals who are asked to “donate” their time and talents for charitable events.  I understand that nonprofits want to get as much as they can for free and keep their expenses down, but they also need to realize that people have bills that they need to pay.  Rent, utilities, and food do not come for free.

My advice to organizations that ask for free performances or services is to ask those you know that already support your organization and mission.  Ask those that have worked for you in the past or currently serve as volunteers or Board members.  If you cannot get their help, ask those outside your organization and offer to pay them a fee, if they are unwilling to do it for free.  You can ask them to do it for a discounted price or negotiate a fair payment, but do not ask someone who has bills to pay to give up their time and talents, if they are struggling in the current economy.  It’s not fair to them, and it makes your organization look bad.


About greatergoodfundraising

Richard Freedlund has been active in the nonprofit sector in a number of ways, both professionally and as a volunteer. He is the founder of Greater Good Fundraising, a business that helps schools and organizations raise money for their programs while accomplishing something positive for the community. After living in Oregon for 27 years, he has returned to his hometown of Rockford, Illinois and hopes to make his mark on the nonprofit sector there. He is the father of a talented jazz musician and the son of philanthropic parents that continue to support multiple causes. To contact Richard for consulting, fundraising, or speaking opportunities, email or reach him on @ggfundraise
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6 Responses to You Can’t Do It All For Free

  1. Thank you so very, very, much for writing what I have been wanting to say but did not know how. Something else that I have always wanted to do is send a letter to the government saying that we just can’t beg up the money which is the other side of the coin. Not all that we need to run a nonprofit that’s going to be worth anything and if we have to put our own money in it, then we may as well make a business out of it, if we can. Yes! I too get tired of being used as a dishrag. May we both have a happy new year. Bertie

  2. Richard, you’re very much on target. I’m tired of people who are getting paid to do their work asking me to do my work for free! Our professional associations are major culprits in this regard. They value the expertise of speakers enough to offer a platform, but they often won’t pay. As you’ve observed, they’ll assume the speaking engagement will lead to business. Well, sometimes it does, but not always. If they’re willing to guarantee me a certain number of signed contracts, I’ll happily speak for free. Otherwise, I’m very choosy when it comes to volunteering my professional services. I learned the word “no” late in my career; it was very liberating.

  3. I’ve made room in my plans for a couple of pro bono clients – because they’re friends and I care about their missions. Beyond that, though, I have had to turn down those requests.

    It’s hard, because I do understand the tight budgets many nonprofit organizations struggle with. But not paying staff or consultants isn’t the way to fix that. Better fundraising may be a big part of the answer. And you probably don’t get the expertise you need to improve unless you’re willing to pay.

  4. Xan says:

    As someone who has worked for many musical organizations, the standard response I have developed for the “it’s great exposure” canard is “People die from exposure.”

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