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Nonprofits, you need to pay your creatives!

Creatives, including visual artists, musicians, graphic designers, dancers, and more, young and old, spend years, decades, and/or lifetimes perfecting their craft. Their work is beautiful, entertaining, inspiring, and most of all, a unique reflection of humanity. Unfortunately, the majority of artists live gig to gig. This is especially true for performing artists who bring in most of their income from live performances rather than prerecorded music or video.

Nonprofits are undoubtedly reliant on low cost and/or volunteer services. Millions of people volunteer their time for nonprofits every year, helping to raise funds, build homes, collect food and clothing, and so on. Why shouldn’t artists be more than willing to do the same? Shouldn’t artists and creatives offer services for free?

Check out Ryan Estrada’s @forexposure_txt Twitter for real life quotes from people attempting to commission creatives to work for free. Here are some samples:

“building stuff inside a video game in my opinion is not a job.”

“Art isn’t a job. If i get money at christmas that doesn’t mean Christmas is a job.”

“Surprised by your invoice. I put a lot of smileys in my emails so I thought we’d become friends and you wouldn’t charge 🙂 :)”

Like any independent contractor, artists have no guarantee of consistent income. Taking a nonprofit gig for free or at a discounted rate can be the difference between paying for critical expenses (e.g. rent, electricity, etc.) or not. There are artists that make money through residencies, or by taking full-time or part-time positions for companies of various sizes, but that is far from the norm.

In the nonprofit industry, we have the greatest understanding of being underpaid for the hard work that we do, as well as the inequities among nonprofit workers of color. There is also a great irony in the fact that some nonprofits try to unfairly pay creatives from historically marginalized communities (e.g. people of color, immigrants, LGBTQ) while concurrently fighting for social justice and equity, sometimes within those very same communities. This practice is inequitable and takes advantage of the creative’s ethnic and/or emotional connection to your organization. Hiring creatives of color at fair pay can create a long-lasting relationship with your organization and can be empowering to the community as a whole, creating leaders, role models, and possibly mentors among the people, especially youth, that you serve on a regular basis.

With that said, nonprofits need to stop the practice of trying to obtain artistic services for free or at highly discounted rates.

Consider these factors when seeking creative services:

  1. It takes far more work than you think – Performing at an event involves way more preparation than you’d think. Some performers may rehearse for 8-10 hours to get ready for a 45-minute set.
  2. Their opportunity cost – A creative may be turning down a potentially higher paying gig to do your nonprofit project for a fraction of what they could make at their standard rate.
  3. Axe the “free exposure” incentive or payment in beer offer – An artist knows when doing a gig for free is worth it and it’s highly unlikely that your gig is the one.
  4. What are the hidden expenses to the artist? – To do your project or event for free or at a reduced rate, an artist may still incur expenses for insurance, meals for rehearsals, gas, wear and tear on their equipment, supplies, etc.

W.A.G.E. (Working Artists and the Greater Economy) is a New York based artist activist organization that conducts research on minimum pay for artists and certifies nonprofits that are committed to minimum payment standards for artists. Although their work has been centered around museums, their research and guidance is invaluable to the overall nonprofit industry. According to their website, the

“Day Rate for Performers at institutions with operating expenses up to $5,000,000 is $25/hour or $125/Day, whichever is higher. Day Rate for Performers at institutions with operating expenses over $5,000,000 is $50/hr or $200/day, whichever is higher.”

Check out W.A.G.E.’s Fee Calculator for more specific artist pay minimums based on the size of your organization. It should be noted that these minimum pay standards are MINIMUMS, hence only a starting point, you still need to negotiate with your creatives.

Final words: Treat artists and creatives as you would any other contractor or small business owner (e.g. accountants, etc.). Hire them often. Pay them fairly.


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