How to Decline to Work for Free – with Grace

This is re-blogged from Heather Caunt-Nulton’s website,, with permission:

I just read a blog post on etiquette for face painters, by Kate of The Face Painting School. Tip #7, regarding “You’ll often get asked to donate your services,” really hit home for me, because it seemed like the requests for free work were even more numerous than usual this week.

As Kate correctly says, you could work for free every single weekend, if you let yourself, as someone who does body art. For some reason, it seems especially common for people to think that they can get henna and face painting for free, even more than other entertainment. One reason organizers are bold enough to ask that you work for them for free is based on their experience – they’ve seen someone else working for free, and figure you’ll be happy to do the same.

There are a few gut reactions that come with being asked to work for free, in my experience.

For me, my first gut reaction to being asked to do henna for free for a legitimately good cause has usually been to feel slightly guilty that there are still things in the world that aren’t all happy and shiny and good, and that I should be doing everything in my power to fix them! Yes! The power of my art shall prevail and the world will be a better place! So of course I should do it! But wait a minute, if I’m not able to earn a living doing my art, how can I continue to use it for the power of good to its maximum potential? If I give away my art, that art will be devalued, and I’ll have to make a living doing something else. That something else will probably suck bits of my soul and/or time away until I have nothing left to give to the cause anyway.

Even if I somehow get independently wealthy, and never have to work a day in my life again (wouldn’t it be nice?), I *still* would not give away my work for free, because it would have a negative effect on others’ ability to earn a living with their art.

The second gut reaction that now comes, now that I see most requests for me to work for free as fundamentally devaluing what I do, is anger. Does the person asking me to work for free work for a living? Would *they* come to work their fulltime job for free if someone asked them to? In many cases, aren’t they getting paid a salary to work for this nonprofit organization that is requesting my time for free? Is the caterer being paid? Is the venue rental free? Why do they not respect that artists need to earn a living too?? How dare they assume that I am desperate enough to do my art that I will just jump on any opportunity to do so, even if it harms my ability to make a living!

That second gut reaction, once you develop it after years (for me it has been 14) of being asked to work for free at least a few times every single week, makes it REALLY easy to turn down the “opportunity” to work for the “exposure” that is typically the only “compensation” these work-for-free scenarios offer. But if you don’t temper your anger a bit, you *will* burn bridges, and get a bad reputation with the organizers who you might end up being rude to. It feels quite justified to give the people requesting that you work for free a piece of your mind, once you’ve really thought through what it is they are asking you for.

The thing is, *they* haven’t really thought through what it is they are asking you for. No nice kind person who volunteers for an organization has a secret agenda of destroying artists’ ability to earn a living. It probably takes most artists quite a few years of being taken advantage of to really realize that working for free does precisely that. No, it is not proper to rage at these kind souls (usually) who are just trying to raise / keep as much money as possible for their organization. They’re good people (mostly).

So, for the sake of your business reputation and your own emotional well-being, it’s far better not to rage at these people asking for you to work for free. Keep them on your side, and keep your interactions positive.

1. Think long and hard about discounts.
For a while, I would give discounts to non-profit groups, in an effort to balance my desire to support good causes with my need to earn a living. That’s definitely one way to go. However, consider the fact that once a discount is given, it will always be expected in the future. People will hear through the grapevine what you charged for this or that event. They’ll often expect the same rate for themselves (because hey, you’re not volunteering, so that must be what you charge normally). Or at least they will know that you are flexible, so maybe they should try to haggle with you. This will make you miserable and frustrated down the road, wondering why no one values your art and your time enough to pay full price. The short answer is because you didn’t value it enough to charge full price.

2. Offer a way to make the situation win-win.

You are being presented with this “opportunity” to work for free because someone out there found out about what you do and liked it enough to ask if you could make it a part of their event. That’s a good thing. You can still work with that. There are quite a few ways to balance their desire to have your cool and beautiful art at their event with your need to make a living.

  • You charge them your standard hourly rate, and they charge the event attendees for your artwork should they choose to take advantage of it. That way, the same value is being donated to the cause – it is just by attendees rather than you. If the cause chooses to spend those resources on having you there, that is their prerogative.Here’s wording from a recent email where I proposed this:“While I cannot donate my services since I make my living doing the henna that you are requesting, I *can* collect a donation from each person that I do henna on at the event so that you can be repaid for the cost of my services. In that way, the services are still donated, but by the crowd who is benefiting from the service, rather than by me who is doing the work.

    The cost will be $__ (your standard rate) for the two hour event. If you request a $__ donation for each henna design done, and I spend __ minutes per design, you’ll earn $__ per hour and $__ total, potentially leaving you with an extra $__ in funds raised that you can use for other things.”

  • You offer to donate your services on a contingent basis:You really love the cause that has asked for you to donate your time. It’s close to your heart. You would’ve volunteered for them happily, really, if you had thought of it first rather than them approaching you. But still, they are asking for your time during one of your busiest days. As a henna artist or other party entertainer, most of your work is on the weekends. And that work is seasonal to boot, so your number of days with maximum earning potential is even further limited.So what this amounts to is that you would actually love to volunteer your time, but literally cannot afford to do so at the time being requested.

    Here’s an excerpt from an email I wrote to deal with this situation:

    “Thanks for your message! I would love to do henna for you, but can’t commit in advance to donating time on one of the top 12 most important henna season weekends of my entire year, I’m sorry to say. If you would like to reschedule your fundraiser for a Mon, Tues, or Wed, I would be happy to donate the time at a time where it does not negatively impact my ability to earn a living.

    Feel free to check in with me on ____(the day before the event), to see if what my schedule is like. Right now, I have events from ___time through ___time on Saturday (so I could probably come ____time, if nothing else gets booked). I have some events pending for Sunday afternoon, but again, perhaps I could do the morning hours. Check in with me on Friday, ___date, and I will be happy to let you know what my weekend availability is like.

    If you need to secure my services farther in advance than that, I will be happy to work at your event for my standard rate of ____.”

3. Decide for yourself how and when you will volunteer your time.
Volunteering feels good. Doing good for other people while doing something that you love is a double win for your soul. Just because you want to protect your ability to earn a living doesn’t mean you should never volunteer to use your most impressive and rare offering, your artistic talents, to benefit causes that you fully support.

So, do volunteer! On your own terms. Contact organizations you love. Ask them if there is any way that they could use your services, because you would be happy to donate them. Keep in mind what dates and times are the least busy for your business (for me this is Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday before 4pm) and let them know that those are the (only) times you are available.

It is my hope that henna artists, face painters, and artists of all kinds who get asked to work for free at events on a regular basis can think about take these suggestions and take some of them to heart.

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