“Exposure” is a dirty word in the gig economy. There are clients (some genuinely naive) who believe exposure to be current currency. And, there are aspiring graphic recorders who buy into the myth that “exposure” will create an endless stream of paid work possibly originating from said clients who requested that you work for free. Complicating matters, some clients will lead you on to create proposals and do the(ir) necessary research before springing their counter-proposal for pro bono, when you have become invested in their project already. But among the chaff, sometimes there is wheat — pro bono work that feeds and nourishes you.
How do you sniff out pro bono projects worth you taking on as a graphic recorder or facilitator?
 Is there a “business case” for taking on this project?
Once, a facilitator asked if I could graphic record at a reduced rate for a closed-door board meeting, where there were several heavy-weight politicians expected to be present. However, my involvement and obviously the graphic recordings cannot be shared, as the meeting records are confidential. It didn’t help that the facilitator (he was an independent) was proposing a graphic recorder to spruce up the “value” of what he was offering the clients at my expense.
Even if I were to account “exposure” as dollars, there was none to be mined here. Nor would I have been able to name drop the people at the meeting.
I’m not sure about you, but it never makes sense to take on projects that want to take without giving. Ask the client what exactly they are offering you as SMART compensation — specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, time-bound. (Obviously, working for “exposure” alone is not smart!)
 Are you paying your bills?
When I was a young graphic recorder, I had a desperate need to fill my calendar. “I am either working and showcasing my work, or not doing anything for the business.” When pro bono work is volunteered, it is usually welcomed with open arms by clients for obvious reasons.
Very soon however, I realised that not only had I bills to pay, some requests for pro bono work I was badgered into too early in advance were preventing me from taking on some profitable assignments that came at shorter notice.
I also realised after some pro bono projects that their staff and vendors were paid, the event was ticketed (and hence profit-making), but I was expected to not only sponsor my services but also the materials. In appreciation, I got a meal (from the buffet line) and occasionally a small honorarium that barely covered my out of pocket expenses.
From then on, I learned my lesson to take on pro bono assignments only when my core business is healthily profitable. And if my professional service as a graphic recorder is worth its value, it is not too much to ask the client for an honorarium that more than covers the incidentals.
(And in case you are wondering, non-profit does not mean no profit.)
 Are you meeting a need or a want?
No doubt, wants are very powerful in creating entire industries, but wants are not your daily bread. If I wanted (not needed) a new backpack but only had ten dollars, I’d get a $3 Quechua with change to spare. I don’t go banging on Prada’s doors demanding one, just because people around me may carry one. If a student needed school fees paid but only had ten dollars, he or she’d seek financial aid.
Unfortunately, there are clients who demand pro bono work to fulfil their wants. I once helped a friend graphic record a free professional sharing he did, but he gladly paid me a honorarium for my work. Another trainer noticed the graphic recordings from the session and started hounding me to graphic record at her next professional sharing session as well. I told her about the fees, but she asked that I work for free since she was sharing for free. This lady even tried convincing me that the session would be great practice for me — I was already working professionally as a graphic recorder.
After I declined, she continued pressuring me to find her a “replacement” and even sent me updates of who was not available, asking me to ask/check/beg other graphic recorders for her.
I finally had to tell her that I was not obliged to.
 Is the client clear and transparent with you?
Recently a prospect reached out to explore a “partnership” and requested to meet up. They wanted to use graphic recording as a way to gather feedback at their multi-day event, but they had not even figured out what the feedback mechanism or process was. I asked if they had a budget, but they couldn’t share. However, they kept emphasising how they will acknowledge me in their publicity.
In this instance, there was no way I could assess whether this was a paid assignment or pro bono. Nor could I limit and define the scope of work. Even if it were a paid assignment, giving how vague the details were, there was no way I could have quoted except with an absurd range of options and variations that would ultimately have to be revised for accuracy once they achieved clarity.
When I was a young graphic recorder, I was very afraid of rejecting people. Part of it was the acquired fear from past jobs, that opportunities don’t knock twice. It didn’t help that clients who ask for pro bono work almost always have a sob story of how you can make the(ir) world a better place if you just give in.
But you can’t say yes to everyone. I once read that a “no” is more anointed than a “yes.” It is easy to succumb under pressure, but the demand on your physical and mental resource and your business will eventually creep up on you. When empty promises from clients never materialise even though you’ve held your end of the bargain, it can make your heart sick.
Say no, so that when you do say yes to pro bono projects, you can say so heartily, knowing that you can enjoy the work of your hands!
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