Working for Charitable Events without Becoming a Charity Case

Posted by: on September 18, 2013

Today’s blog is inspired by a question from one of my colleagues. Here is what she wrote:

Over the years, like everyone else, I have gotten MANY requests to perform for free at this or that fundraising event. As an independent performer with no company (just me), I would say I get more of these than paying requests.

As much as I believe in helping my fellow man, I cannot perform for free. If/when I have performed for free, it was a) very early in my performing life b) in exchange for something of use to me (personal artistic collaboration with fellow artists, sometimes for excellent video, etc).

Every single time I get one of these requests, I find it very upsetting. I know that emotion needs to stay out of it, but it feels quite devaluing to be asked to do my job for free (or, more realistically, at a cost to me once insurance and other costs are taken into account).

I have never, for whatever reason, taken the time to draft a form response to this type of request. I do feel that it is not only an opportunity, but a responsibility, to somehow use the letter as an opportunity to educate about what it means to ask a performing artist to perform for free. Of course, I need to do it kindly and calmly.

Here are some of the tactics/questions I’ve developed for responding to and dealing with these types of requests:
It’s much easier to say ‘Here’s our policy for charitable requests’, rather than having to justify a personal position. My wife, who has been self-employed for 35 years, taught me all about the policy of having a Policy. It works like a charm on everything from cancellation policies to your policy about deposits to inclement weather clauses.

And, if you have your policy in writing, you don’t have to re-think your answer every time. You don’t have to get your emotions up, because the policy will save your bacon. It becomes about business, rather than a personal affront to my value as an artist.

People have a right to ask, and you have a right to say no.

Write your policy out, then practice saying it. “Performing is how we make our living, so we don’t perform for free. It’s our policy to offer a xx% discount to charitable organizations”. Practice now.

Remember that elephants perform for peanuts. Artists perform for decent wages.

My policy is to do one big charity event a year, at a significantly reduced rate. Some people do more, some people do less. Know what’s right for you, and don’t be nicer than you are – that’s just a breeding ground for resentment. As charitable event requests come in during the year, I will evaluate if the request seems to fit the bill as ‘the one’ for this year.

Then, the other events get my standard Policy line.

I am much more willing to devote my time and energy to a cause that is near and dear to my heart, rather than to a group or cause that I am not personally invested in.

For example, I performed for free for several years in a row at the CIBC Run for the Cure for breast cancer. A good aerial friend was Run Director and was donating her time for free. A bunch of us performed for the runners as they crossed the finish line, and it was a feel good time for all.

Now that I’m in business for myself, I’ve made it my policy to not accept a gig where the performers and I don’t make SOMETHING. Our hard costs have to be covered (performance fee, costumes, rehearsals, parking, Worker’s Comp). And my soft costs have to be covered as well (insurance, time, website, proposals) for events I’m not personally attached to.

I also consider whether I will get anything out of performing for the event. Will I get to test run a new act? Will I get tremendous video or photos from it? Is there a professional relationship I want to cultivate?

Earlier this year I performed for a reduced, yet reasonable rate, at an incredible venue in NYC. I hired a photographer and videographer, because I wanted to make the event worth it for me. Here’s a couple of the fabulous photos we got from that event:
Capitale Heather Split Flutter

Capitale Guin Inverted Split Med
Photos by Christine Nygueyn

I’ve become skeptical of the line ‘This event will be great exposure for you’. I have yet to get another gig from having performed for free somewhere. Mostly I find other people who want me to perform for free or for a ridiculously reduced rate. Maybe you will be luckier than me, but probably not. I have, however, performed for free at a couple of events for event planners and have gotten a couple of leads.

Also chances are the charity is paying for the venue and the caterer and the DJ. So why should you perform for free?

Often a charity will say they’ll give you a charitable donation receipt for your services. I’ve experienced a couple of problems wit this set up. Either you never get the receipt, or, you learn, as I learned after the fact from my accountant, that charitable donation receipts don’t count for a donation of services (but they do count for donations of goods).

If you want a valid charitable donation receipt, the cash actually has to change hands. This means they pay you your standard fee and then you write them a check for the amount you’re donating. Imagine yourself getting a check for your full fee (yum!). Now imagine yourself writing them a check for several hundred dollars as a charitable donation — how does that feel?

At times, I have felt in necessary to give the client my laundry list of what my expenses are and I why I can’t perform for free (or for peanuts, which is essentially the same thing). I’ve explained that we are the first to arrive and the last to leave, that we have to rent rehearsal space at $25/hour to choreograph to their selected piece of music, that I have to pay for insurance, Worker’s Comp, that I believe in paying myself and my talented performers a living wage, that we are not a charity even though they are… and the list goes on.

Mostly, I have found it’s helpful to know these things quietly for myself, so that when I deliver my policy line “It’s our policy to offer charitable organizations an xx% discount”, I can say it without defensiveness or anger. The client can take it or leave it, and so can I. Just as a client gets to pick whether we are a good fit for them, I get to pick if the client is a good fit for me.

I have learned to believe in abundance. The more I say ‘no’ to gigs that I don’t want, the more better gigs come into my life. It was hard to believe in abundance when I first started out. I was much more willing to sell myself short to at least be performing. But, that model wasn’t sustainable for obvious reasons.

Are you afraid of getting a reputation as the artist who wouldn’t perform for free? Egads!

So the real work is to become comfortable with charging what we are worth. I’ve had to learn that just because someone doesn’t value my worth as a performer, it doesn’t mean I’m worthless. We teach people how to treat us. If we teach them we are not of great value by working for free or for peanuts, then we are our own worst enemy.

So let me hear you, all together now, “It’s our policy to offer an xx% discount to charitable organizations. Does that work for you?” It works for me!

Happy performing!

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  1. Alex Davies says:

    Great article! Would you mind if we reposted to our website as our featured blog and used one of your photos? We’ll make sure to credit your photo to your blog page. :)

    • heliummm says:

      Yes, Alex.
      Please re-post as is – the info really applies to all performing artists. And thanks for appropriate credit to the blog and photographer.

  2. Great article.

    Our “policy” response is:

    Thanks for inviting us to be a part of your event! Each year, we select one or two charities to donate our services to, usually ones in our community. We’ve already chosen our causes for this year, but if you’d like to be considered for a benefit performance next year, please send us a request with the dates, times, overall budget for the event, and what you’re able to offer as an entertainment fee within your budget.

    We’ve never had anyone remember to get in touch the following year. Sometimes I’ll recommend that they get in touch with the local college’s circus club, with the phrase, “their student performers are sometimes seeking public performance time to improve their acts, in exchange for a donation to their club.”

  3. Maureen Scurfield says:

    When my kids were little and I was a single mom, I would say to people who didn’t wan to pay for my emcee services “I promised my children I would never leave them with a babysitter to go out and work for nothing.” There is no argument to counter that. Now I am the person I’m protecting as well as I protected my kids.

  4. Haylee-Mai says:

    Oh wow thanks so much for saying this! All of this is so very true and I’m glad to see this is not something I’ve been dealing with alone over the years!
    I have learnt to say no and stick to my guns, but having a set policy would make it far easier – thank you much x

  5. Albena says:

    Excellent article!
    Many thanks for it!

    Now since you’re an aerialist, I would like to ask you a professional question, not connected with the article. I’m a professional dancer and was recently invited to perform in a production that will include not only dance, but some acrobatic/aerial effects, stage magic (possible some disappearing acts through a trap door etc.) Can you give me some information about venues that are suitable for this kind of work, i.e. theaters that not only can fit a dance performance, but have the proper equipment (like rigging) for flights, for example?

    Sincerely: Albena

    • heliummm says:

      Dear Albena,

      Glad you liked the article, and thanks for your questions.

      There are many venues that are riggable. A certified rigger with aerial experience will be able to help you determine if a particular venue is suitable for the needs of the particular production you mention. Flying has particular requirements beyond those of a single aerial point, so again, an experienced aerial rigger will be key. The show’s producers will need to consider elements such as ceiling height, fly system, number and location of riggable points, and load ratings, among others. Speak to the Technical Director of the theater, who should have the required information. As a performer, you’ll need to be sure you’ve done your due diligence to be sure you are comfortable with the rigging set up. After all, you’re the one who will be performing on it!

      In New York City, there are a few smaller theaters that are riggable, such as:
      Dixon Place
      Connelly Theater
      Theater for the New City

      Good luck with the production. Stay safe. Get professionals to handle the aspects that you are not familiar with. And don’t forget your aerial performer’s insurance (!

  6. Patricio says:

    Great blog. Very useful for a lot of people that needs a different point of view and is often accepting gigs because they feel under preasure, or simply because they dont want to say no, or close a door.

    Often, the fundraisers try to make aeven at the lower possible cost.
    Is what they do, and because they know there is a ton of performers of different levels and different motivations who would perform for free, they try. Its like any negotiation. The worst i got offered lately was a bottle of wine and atable for us and 2 more friends to stay after the show.
    The are many reasons why someone my accept certain conditions and why not. And they are all valid as far as the performer is happy about it. :)

  7. […] Heliumm: Working Charitable Events Without Becoming a Charity Case […]

  8. Jabbar says:

    I am a musician and a dancer, im looking to be apart of the organization

    • heliummm says:

      Hi, Jabbar,
      Thanks for your interest in joining our team!
      Send me some videos that show your current skill set and we’ll take it from there. Where are you based?

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