Don't hate me for suggesting you give away your amazing gifts and talents for free. I promise there is a method to my madness.
I recently had the honor of hearing the great graphic artists Paula Scher speak at an AIGA event. During her talk, she poured out hard-learned lessons, industry commentary, and well honed advice gleaned over her 40-year career.
We were all eating up every word, until she she said, "You should work for free." An audible gasp could be heard in the auditorium when the slide came up. "How could the queen of design, my heroine of typography say such a thing?," was all I could think.
She expected this reaction and chucked to herself as she explained her statement. For her, working for free was the way in which she kept her creative fire burning and juices flowing. It was't client work, with all of its restrictions and scope summaries, that allowed her to spread her wings. The freebies were where she could try her hand at a foreign technique, or take a chance partnering with a new artist she had discovered. She had morphed what most see as drudgery into her own little research and development department.
This was revolutionary!
What if instead of seeing pro bono work as giving yourself away, you see it as giving yourself a boost?
But, with all things, there is a best way to approach this technique. A handful of questions must be asked before you can throw yourself into a freebie project. These questions will secure your position, establish good boundaries, and maintain your sanity.
So go forth and do for free, but first ask God and yourself...
Will this opportunity bring me closer to or further away from my vision?
You should have a vision, and that vision should birth a working list of goals related to your creative pursuits. "I want to write 10 chapters of my book by December" or "I want to learn more about the music business so I can make the right decisions for my album release" or "I want to meet 5 new creatives working in my field over the next month," all are examples of goals you can set for yourself over months or years. I find that as I put pen to paper, God gives me nudges on certain things, which helps me know I am goal-ing in the right direction. Once you have goals, it makes it one-million times easier to say yes or no to offers, especially freebies.
If your goal is to meet new people in your industry and you are asked to work for free on an event where industry people are invited and would see your work, then say YES.
If your goal is to complete your book and you are asked to ghostwrite 20 hours per week for free, then maybe that is a NO.
What is the real cost?
You must budget your money and your time wisely. Figuring out how much time per week or month you can devote to your craft ensures that you do not go energy bankrupt, aka burnout. If someone asks you to do a new project, but that project requires more time than is allotted, you have to think long and hard about what you are willing to give up in order to keep everything in balance.
Every time you say YES to something, you say NO to 5 things. Sometimes those things are family members, sleep, supporting your friends, your other creative rituals, or relaxation time. Will the cost of that YES be worth it in the end. If the YES is too expensive, then say NO.
What do I get out of the deal?
Yes, you can ask this question. Any time you do work, you start with a negotiation, whether money is involved or not. You are providing a service, so you should ask to be compensated. That compensation can come in many forms, so ask the question and be real about the answer.
Here are a few of my non-negotiables when it comes to freebies...
Complete Creative Freedom
If I work for free, I get to do what I want (within reason).
Don't be content with the old "you'll get a lot of exposure" line. Demand specifics. Mentions on every promo item, website homepage link, recommendation letter for my future use, whatever I want, ask for it.
The Freedom to Back Out
At any time. No questions asked.
Long Term Partnership
If this is a big opportunity worth my time, I'll ask for more than a one off. I make this a multi-year or multi-project partnership so I can get those valuable benefits over and over again.
What is the end game?
Do you want this to become a paying gig? Are they promising you this will become a paying gig? Then get the parameters of that transition clear and in writing. Maybe you only commit to 3 years of work, after that, if no payment is possible, you are done. Maybe it is a wait and see kind of agreement. Whatever you feel is best needs to be discussed.