Apr 13, 2012

Inadvisable Advice: How to Ask Artists for Free Work

We all have passion projects, and at some point they might need a piece of creative work we can’t make ourselves: whether it’s video, audio, or even something as simple as a logo. When you get to that point, your best bet is to scrape together the money to have someone else do it. It will save you time, headache, and hassle, and make for a good final product.

But what if you simply, really, truly don’t have the money? Then it’s time to go asking for free work. Nobody wants to work for free, and simply asking can make a poor impression. So if you have to – and I mean absolutely have to – approach an artist about working for free – which you should avoid doing at all costs – here are some tips to do it right.


1) Know what you want.

Before you ask someone to donate their time, write down specifically what you want from them. Include time frames, deliverables, and spell out who will pay for materials if there are any. Also include as much information as you can about the project: tone, subject matter, platforms, audience, etc.

While you’re doing this, try to get the volunteer part of the job as small as possible.  The smaller the job is, the easier it will be to fit into the artist’s workload.

Don’t expect the artist to fill in these gaps for you; our ideal amount of free work is “none.”


2) Be upfront.

If you can’t pay, you can’t pay. Say that at the beginning. Never engage anyone with promises of paid work, hoping they’ll like your project so much they’ll do it for free. Never neglect to mention your lack of budget, either.
This can lead to the worst possible scenario for your project: the artist spends your entire development cycle trying to find time for you, only to bail at the latest possible date, leaving a big hole in your project.


3) Make sure your project is relevant to the artist.

You have a much better chance of getting volunteers if what you want is in line with the work they already do, or with a passion area of theirs. The work itself should be fun for them, and should produce a piece that fits in their portfolio.


4) Offer other things.

If your project is going to make money, anyone working on it in the no-budget stage should get an equity stake proportional to the work they did. This should go without saying.
If your project won’t make money, think about why you’re doing the project, and how you can share those incentives with the rest of your team.
Is it for charity? Let them know what they’re working for.
Is it for exposure? Push them into the spotlight.
Is it for experience? Give them access to resources they normally wouldn’t have.
Is it for fun? Make their experience awesome.
Is it your dream? Offer to work on one of their projects in exchange.
Remember, you work for free on your project because it’s yours; if you want others to work without pay too, you have to make it partly theirs.
Don’t skimp on your non-money rewards, either; make sure they have a lot of value.


5) Be prepared to hear them say no.

Plans go awry, and better sooner than later. Make sure your project doesn’t hinge on getting a particular volunteer, and be gracious if it doesn’t work out.

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