I have written previously about the benefits of volunteering. Not just in terms of doing a good thing for those less fortunate, but also in terms of gaining industry experience where you might not have otherwise had the opportunity.
However, let’s be clear – working for free is not the same as volunteering. Yet, for better or worse, the former seems to be rife in the arts and creative industries.
When people have aspirations to forge a path in a particular industry, it’s not uncommon to complete tasks for free, with the promise of other rewards. These might be in the form of (possible) future paid work, industry experience, or perhaps the most dreaded word of so many creatives….exposure.
I worked in the entertainment industry for many years, and not a week went by where we weren’t approached by a conference organiser, company or venue, who asked if our musicians could perform at their event for free. Well, for the ‘exposure’. Were their events for a charity? Were they raising money? No. They were corporate occasions where excessive money was being spent on all other aspects involved in making the event an enjoyable one, but for some reason, it seemed appropriate to ask the musicians to perform for free. To undertake work, and something they had been training their whole life to do, for nothing.
It always baffles me, but perhaps it stems from the fact that a lot of creative work is commercially registered as ‘fun’. Does one really need to charge a fee to sing, or design invitations, or choreograph a wedding dance? Even if that person has spent years of training and education honing their craft? Well to those people I say, next time, perhaps ask your newly graduated accountant friend who loves numbers if they’d like to do your tax return for free. Or if that childcare worker you know from school would like to look after your kids for free? Well, not for free of course. For experience! Sounds a bit different now doesn’t it?
I have worked for free in various capacities over the years, and I did this because the trade off was worth it. I completed unpaid internships at large companies, but this was in return for university credits. I wrote creative and well researched gig reviews, but this was in return for free tickets to gigs and having my articles appearing on a reputable website. I wrote press releases for a friend’s start up company and this, well, this was probably a mistake. I saved them a lot of money and received nothing in return. And thus I learnt who thought my work was valuable and what, in terms of compensation, was valuable to me.
So, when it comes to deciding whether forgoing monetary compensation is worth it, it’s important to assess whether the return is worth the effort. Experience can be beneficial, and having someone request your talents or work can be humbling, but before jumping at it, take the time to remember that your time is valuable. Your experience and education counts. And if you were in a different industry, would people feel so comfortable in asking you to work for free?