Pro Bono Work – A Cautionary Tale

This is something of a companion piece to my ramblings concerning Work For Hire, which is another trap that artists tend to fall into. This one concerns Pro Bono work, also known as “Working for free”.

Now, I’m not going to tell you to never work for free, because there are plenty of projects that I do on a regular basis in a volunteer capacity, I do them because I love the work and I’m happy to use my talents to help out a friend or a cause that I believe in or who may not have a huge budget to work with. That’s just fine.

There is however a prevailing perception that since artists love what they do that they will just do it at the drop of a hat and for no pay. For example, a group needs a poster, they need someone to design it, perhaps to create some amazing & eye-catching artwork for it, then to print it, distribute it, etc… That’s all well and good but they still need to pay for that paper…and that printing…and probably a dozen other related items. So okay, we’ll pay the printer for his work because that’s a “real” thing, paper is a real thing, ink is real…you get the idea. But the art, well, isn’t that just some sort of abstract action done by this person over here who loves to color, he’s just basically playing. And besides, he wants the “exposure” that this poster will bring him. You know artists, they’re all starved for attention.

At the end of the day however, it really comes down to the fact that, as a professional artist, one needs to be compensated for one’s work, the same way that a printer needs to be compensated to continue the work that he does. So for me it comes down to a balancing act between the paid work that I do and the pro bono that I donate, and I need to manage my time so that I can schedule one around the demands of the other. Deadlines are deadlines after all and there’s nothing more embarrassing (or unprofessional) for an artist than to not be able to meet a deadline for whatever reason.

Another tough issue for me is asking for money. I simply hate doing it. For some people, negotiating pay is easy, but I personally am not one of those, and I envy those who are. Be that as it may, it’s important to go into any project with a clear understanding of how one will eventually be compensated. I can’t count the times I’ve done a project and repeatedly asked myself, “Am I going to be paid for this? It was never really openly stated…” So with pro bono, as with any other kind of contracted work, one should ideally have a written contract. Or at the very least, save all of those email conversations just in case there is a question about what, if anything, was agreed upon. On a side note, this is also why I absolutely hate doing business over the phone, I’m terrible at recalling verbal information, I really really prefer to have all of the important things written down. Heck, I can’t even remember my PIN number half the time…

But anyway, go forth, have fun, help your friends out doing the work you love, just don’t forget that you’ve gotta eat too…