Free? Why, no, it’s not.

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 and their blog for hosting this writing forum once a week.




6 thoughts

  1. Thank you for this thoughtful exploration of the issue. Your own and your son’s experiences bring the dilemma to life for us. I like the idea of a small fee as a place-holder, to make people take their attendance more seriously. I recently have been attending quite a few webinars and virtual events that had a small charge, and offered free slots for those who need it. I was happy to pay. Of course, I worry about some who might need the fee waived but are put off by having to ask. But I totally agree with your conclusion- no, these things are not free. That was an illusion that cannot be maintained.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Fran, and I apologize for my late reply. It is a dilemma, I agree that those who cannot afford it can be given free slots. We did have an event set up that way to run this year. But, alas, with my resignation, and then with the COVID restrictions this spring/summer, I do not think it was held. Thanks for doing your part, and thinking about this too!


  2. Thanks for a thoughtful approach to this subject. The Land Trust of which I’m a part used to offer its educational outreach activities at no charge. We found we would “sell out” when it came to reservations, but then have around 25% of the families actually show up. “It’s free–I can just blow it off if something better comes up,” is what we found to be the case. We started to charge a nominal fee, but found it difficult to manage when it came to refunds, etc. We finally settled on many of our activities (not all) being an offering for members only. Now attendance is nearly 100% every time, and as an added bonus we don’t have members (who are actually paying for the activity with their membership fees) finding a full activity that they can’t participate in. It was a tough call, but we like where it’s ended up.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Tim, My apologies with being so late to reply to this thoughtful comment. What you described is exactly what we were experiencing at Land Trust where I was the Education Program and Event Manager last year. Spots filled quickly and then we’d have no shows. It was a problem. I wrote a grant (which was one of three I wrote that were all successfully funded) to have an outdoor program for women. The university with which we partnered charged a nominal fee for registration and gave part of it back to participants. We were going to try it since I would have had their guiding hand – BUT, it took some doing to convince other staff it was the way to go. I think part of the problem was the record keeping and making sure the revenue from that event went back into the land parcel for which the event was used. That part wasn’t (thankfully) my job but still…. Another example was a tour of Caverns that were also a bat hibernaclum. The tours – two days of 120 spots each filled within a day! The first tour was well attended. The second, a month later, was not. The Natural Resource Foundation of WI also ran similar tours on the same property and charged $40. a pop (pp). It was not good for us to offer the free tours when people were racing to see this property – one that I felt could have served as the “crowning jewel” of the Conservancy. Good to know you all found some method you can live with. It is a problem! Thanks again for the comments and your patience!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It’s so much fun, and it’s so satisfying to provide programming for the community. The “business side” of things: Not so much. It sounds like you’ve been a part of (and put together) so many good things!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Yes! It’s been fun to educate my community. I love doing it. I wish the Conservancy job had been a better fit, but I consider myself an educator and their priority was not on EE. It became hard to continue to plan events and not educate!


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