Whenever you ask an artist to do something for free, there is a cost. All too often we undervalue the contribution of people who work creatively, especially if the person providing services doesn’t do so as a full-time gig. If you are a part-time or hobbyist creative that happened upon this article, I hope I can provide you with a helpful little tool to say no. By the way, no is my favorite word.
However, if you are not a creative, but someone in the hiring business, then don’t leave yet, because I think you and I have a couple of things to discuss so that you can have a better outcome on your projects and maintain a good relationship with those friends you lean on more often than you would like.
So, first of all, is it okay to ask people to help you out for free? Of course, it is, but rest assured that they will be asking the same of you (artist take note!). I know what your thinking, no problem! I’d love to help out in your next art project thingy. But here’s the rub. I don’t want your help with the art project. You’re an accountant. I need you to do my taxes for free. Or, maybe you’re an attorney, marketing executive, or own a grocery store. I need legal advice, free marketing, or some freakin’ food because do you know how many people ask me to work for free? When you think of the ask in those terms, does it change the initial question? Are you comfortable in giving away your work for someone else’s financial gain?
Secondly, it’s generally a big no-no to ask people to provide free services for a commercial endeavor. Again, going back to the scenario’s above, you wouldn’t think about asking your local television station to provide you with air time for free without some sort of return of goods or services. Always, and I mean always offer something in exchange when you are making money off of other peoples work.
Lastly, you are not doing anyone a favor by asking them to work for free. I hear this quite a bit. Well, think of the experience you will gain if you participate. It will be something for your portfolio! No, it won’t. I already have a portfolio of work, and that is why you are asking for help. Favors never come in the form of free labor when the other party is profiting.
Okay, high horse set aside, there are appropriate times to ask for unpaid help, and that is for a cause. If you are working toward something greater than yourself, raising money for a nonprofit or attempting to call attention to an unmet need, then, by all means, ask. However, that’s volunteering, and you have to be okay with a no. There is no difference in asking people for free labor than asking them for money. In fact, I might argue you are asking for more than money. You are requesting an artist’s most valuable and well-guarded asset … their time.
So, for you artists out there that deal with these kinds of asks, I have a little something I’d like to share. This is the typical response that I have worked on perfecting over the years. It used to be much more high spirited and perhaps a little bit snarky, but I’ve made attempts to soften it over the years. Feel free to copy and adapt for your own use, and good luck out there!
First of all, thank you so much for thinking of me for your project. I’ve worked very hard to get better at my craft, and I appreciate the recognition in the ask. However, I am not going to be able to help you this time. I understand that funds are tight, but unfortunately, I carefully guard my time and my commitments to make sure I can deliver the absolute best for anyone that hires me for my services. Should you receive additional funding in support of paying for these services, I would love to reconsider. Until then, good luck on your project and I hope you will keep me in mind for the next one.
Keep it simple, concise, and personable. There’s no need to explain further because most people will understand, and if you are worried about burning bridges or upsetting a potential client (we artist tend to be people-pleasers) don’t. If they are not paying, they are not your client, and if this polite no upsets them, you likely don’t want them as a client anyway.