The world of art and non-profit organizations, while separate but sometimes overlapping, share a common conundrum. They both face the expectation of receiving goods and/or services for “free.”
I am not a stranger to providing goods or services for free. As you might be aware, I led a garden club once a month for a total of fifteen years at two local elementary schools. The students never paid to be part of this group, and I never was paid for leading it until I had done it for fourteen years and changed districts. Still, students got excellent service, an extraordinary learning opportunity, and sometimes even some “goods” such as a seed, a plant, a terrarium, or a living ornament to take home. I was fine with not charging the families to be part of the group. In my eyes, the lack of a registration fee was part of offering an equitable and accessible learning opportunity for all those who wished to participate. When faced with budgetary constraints for bigger projects and/or a bigger enrollment, I turned to grants or donations to fill in the gaps.
This was much the same at a conservation organization at which I worked last year for a short time. We provided many, many events over the course of the eight months of my employment. They were provided to our community and members for FREE. Some involved food, most involved experts on the subject at hand, and nearly all included an activity such as a guided hike or educational “lesson” of some kind. When the subject of having participants pay for our goods and services was broached, it was almost taboo with some other staff members. They vehemently explained that “we cannot charge, we are a non-profit.” But, as my experience and self-edification ensued, I learned that other non-profits were indeed charging for events very similar (if not exact) to ours. Sometimes the fees were just so that participants would show up to the event, at which time they were refunded. The ten or twenty dollars required at registration was merely used as a place-holder for the attendee, once they arrived, it was refunded either actually or electronically.
Fees are not such a bad thing, especially if they are nominal. Grants do not always get granted and donations are not always offered in a timely fashion, if at all. Fees sometimes indicate that the activity, event, imparted knowledge, or even presenter is valued by the participants. Last year, at the Conservancy, I had a number of participants indicate they would gladly pay fees for events and/or services. Of course, the extent of this needs to be weighed by the whole of the organization and administration, but it should deserve consideration and open, thoughtful communication.
One of the problems that stem from offering goods or services for free is that people begin to expect to receive things without being charged. My son, a young artist, has experienced this recently. He’s been having regular giveaways on his social media sites to build his “brand” and following. But, when he started charging commissions for his art, some balked – why isn’t it free, they asked? Some of his classmates even accused him of overcharging for his art, not realizing the hours that are spent stroking multiple layers of paint on a canvas or layering colored pencils to get the “right” skin tone.
“Free” goods and services, whether from a community after school group, a non-profit, or a young artist should not an expectation but a surprise. A bonus. A wonderful way to thank your members or followers. Expectations of receiving things for free does not belong in the arts, non-profit organizations, or school groups. There are ways we can all work together to provide goods and services for all and have the provider, teacher, or artist still feel valued.
Free? Why, no, I am sorry. It’s not.
Today is Slice of Life: Tuesday. Thank you to TwoWritingTeachers.org and their blog for hosting this writing forum once a week.