A recession feels statistical, anecdotal, and removed from reality when it’s just an ongoing news story in the daily paper and on TV. It’s much more real when someone you know is unemployed, underemployed, or looking for work in the wake of downsizing rumors at their firm. And when everyone you know in turn knows a few folks in that boat, the recession hits home pretty clearly.
The upside is that the recession is prompting a resurgence of the unemployed-turned-entrepreneur with “going local” at the center of it. We’d probably even see more of this if property owners would bring down the cost of commercial space, but it looks like we still need some thought-leadership on that front.
In a similar vein, those breaking out on their own should consider the advantages of “giving it all away” in order to make marketing gains and build further referrals and business.
Most firms are familiar with the idea of doing a certain amount of pro bono work in order to build up a portfolio, establish the company, and provide charitable contributions as part of the business’s public relations outreach. But for the solo act, or small partnership, such outreach butts up against the need for immediate cash. To that end, it’s all about trust.
The cost of doing business
The rub comes when you think you’re just too high and mighty to make no-money-exchanged partnering deals. Perhaps you fear that doing free work is beneath you. After all, you’ve been paid in the past to write, edit, design, videotape, create campaigns, illustrate, or rent space. Isn’t making a raft of freebie deals going backwards?
Could be. But things are drying up all over, and the bottom line is that the partnerships you create have the potential to be synergistic, and they must be, to be a catalyst for future work.
Pro bono means “for the public good,” which, in the case of creative types, means helping other businesses or non profits achieve their communication and outreach objectives through methods that might not be available on staff, particularly during these lean times. But pro bono is always a leap of faith. You can work your imagination to the bone and not only not get another contract out of it, but they may forget to thank you, or credit you in their program. It happens.
There is a degree of selflessness in pro bono work, but increasingly—and fairly—there is a degree of selfishness. By giving some work away, you can ask for certain things, such as:
- A mention on social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn with links to your work included.
- To be cited in the company’s next e-blast, with links to your own website.
- To make a presentation before their board, company execs, or at an all-company brown bag lunch.
The key is being assertive enough to ask for reciprocal acknowledgment and then follow through to make sure it’s given.
On the business or non-profit side, it’s good to be mindful that creative types are the ones most asked for free work, either intellectual, creative, or hard goods, such as the contributions of artists at silent auctions or other functions. When you ask for something, be ready with what the service or artistic donor receives in return.
A little free beer won’t bankrupt you
Also, particularly if you’re a non-profit, consider sending the hat around to your board to generate payback for these creative types, or otherwise reward them big with tickets to your most exclusive and costly gala. Believe me, the few canapes they eat and craft brews they down will be little in comparison to the liveliness they’ll bring to the event, especially making it look less scant on attendance in a down economy. Andy Warhol did this all the time, peppering his parties with up-and-coming unknowns just because they were so cool that they added to an event’s atmosphere.
If you already think you do too much that’s free, start being choosier, even drafting your own giving policy and sharing it with those who ask something of you. For example, as a writer or artist, you might say you give away ten free pieces a year, and you prioritize educational institutions above other organizations. Then be prepared with your business cards, brochures, and website links to make clear what manner of recognition you’d like for the contribution. Similarly, you can partner with another creative type and give referrals to each other for giving when a particularly meaty opportunity comes up.
Mutual assistance helps businesses grow, even when you feel so stretched and underpaid that you hardly know why you should do it. Yes it takes a bit of faith, trust, and time that you don’t think you have. But like any form of networking, this break might just be the big one.