Donating Services to Charity

Posted on 17 December 2014

A number of years ago I was on an organising committee for an industry conference. Every year this conference has a charity event on the last night. I was asked if I could get some of my comedian friends on board. Many of the people in this industry are quite well-off. I knew that this event had in the past collected thousands of dollars for their charity. So, I asked what the budget was for entertainment.

They said they expected the performers to work for free, it was for charity after all. I asked them if they were paying for the food preparation. They said, yes. I asked them if they were paying for the servers. They said, yes. I asked them if they were paying for cleaners, they said yes. How much money do you think these workers make for their time? Do you expect them to work for free because this is a charity? How much do you think the performers make in a year? Often they make less than these other workers, and yet you are asking them to work for free.

I was told these performers should then be grateful for the opportunity to be seen by the members of this conference. It would boost their career. I said I own my business, I know what it is like starting out. You don’t boost a person’s career by not paying them. You are taking away from what precious time they have to support themselves and practice their art. If you can afford to pay, you pay. Otherwise, this is exploitation.

But it’s for charity, they repeated. I said, that makes your expectation no less exploitative. They don’t owe it to you to perform. You are not a registered charity, you just happen to have a charity dinner. You are not doing them any favours, but if they agree, they are doing you a tremendous favour and it needs to be respected.

I was then told, they must not be very talented if they can’t afford to give their time. My response: How many great artists have died in poverty? How many of them needlessly died in poverty? The charity dinner went forward without any performers.

The vast majority of the public has no idea what it is like to work as an artist of any stripe. Most of them don’t want to know. And most artists won’t say, because if they do, they know they will be judged due to false expectations. Hollywood beefs up the rags to riches story because people like to imagine they could become a wealthy mega-star. Just work hard and it’s yours, goes the myth. Such a tiny hand full of people manage this and their contributions will be largely forgotten compared to more significant artists. Then of course there’s the mean-spirited and punitive expectation, you enjoy your work so you should accept poor living and working standards.

Right now the arts are in crisis. A report in Britain revealed that they have lost a whole class of professional writers and are concerned about what this bodes for the future. Because hardly anyone is getting paid, everyone is being judged as a hobbyist regardless of skill and talent. This needs to change. Arts are not an optional extra. They are a significant part of individual and social well-being. They are about creating social cohesion, greater understanding of the human state, and a better future.

Everyone needs to be involved in making the world a better place, but this isn’t going to happen when you are helping some by taking away from others. I would encourage artists to continue helping with charity, just be careful under what circumstances you are donating your skills. Charities and those running charitable soirees, if you are serious about your intent, then I expect you to hold your events with the utmost integrity and sensitivity. Think about what you are asking your artists to do and how respectful those requests really are.

Peace and kindness,

Katherine


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