Wil Wheaton, Nonprofits & the Problem of "Free"

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Like many other people on Facebook, I check out the "Trending" stories section - mostly in order to procrastinate. But a recent item written by writer/actor Wil Wheaton has received great attention...and has implications for nonprofits, social ventures, and community organizations in the Chicago area.

As a result of a piece about seven things he is doing to reboot his life, Wil Wheaton received an inquiry from the Huffington post about reposting that particular entry. When he asked about payment, the Huffington Post....well, let me just direct you to his account of what happened.

As a nonprofit professional, I have two very conflicting views about providing "free"/pro bono services, as well as some nonprofits' attitudes towards taking on professionals.

Part of my conflict is that, by their very nature, nonprofits are not money-making ventures. (Any perceived "profit", ideally, should go back into the organization for providing services and needs for its community). For many smaller nonprofits and other mission-related organizations, there simply are not enough resources, and often rely heavily on volunteer efforts. In fact, many smaller organizations often rely on less expensive options (such as open source software or cloud-based applications) as a way of minimizing their overall cost. So receiving free/pro bono services is a good thing. (And note - I also have and continue to volunteer for a variety of organizations and causes)

However, there is an increasing movement by many freelance professionals to assert their right to formal payment and compensation for their work (which is the main point of the Wil Wheaton article). The Freelancers Union - a nonprofit focused on insuring the rights of "independent workers" - runs a strong campaign behind the idea that "Freelance Isn't Free". (There's even a great, if not-safe-for-work-due-to-profanity, video advocating for the idea of contracts that bolster professional relationships). Even some of my colleagues will often leap at the chance for "freebies" without necessarily thinking through the consequences. (One popular software package donates licenses to nonprofits, but the exchange is....minimal customer service, a heavy learning curve, and a need to educate staff on its proper use).  Even when seeking out clients, I always wince slightly when I hear a nonprofit say the words, "We can't afford to pay you...."

As you can see, I have two different attitudes - I believe nonprofits should acquire the necessary resources to do their work, but I also think that this reliance on free services may actually hurt them in the long run. Focusing on price and "what-can-we-get-for-nothing" might result in an attitude of entitlement, thinking that they should get particular services because they are working in the common good.

(And to be fair - I've stretched many a nonprofit budget by stocking office supply cabinets through handouts at health fairs and trade shows)C Now - Workstation 02

So what's the solution? And how does one handle these issues? For me, it's keeping a few things in mind:

  • Volunteering is OK, but not as a full time job - Spending my free time volunteering to sharpen my skills and/or "give back" is a good thing, since my expectations are minimal. But for those who advocate volunteering in order to be "hired" by the same agency later on....it rarely happens. Nonprofits often rely on volunteers to accomplish various tasks, but making volunteering a "day job" can be unrealistic unless there's an independent source of income.
  • When asked to perform pro bono work, I request a formal contract - Chalk this up to experience; having the same contract for volunteer work as for paid work insures that my time is being used well. (I'm differentiating between "things that a volunteer would do" and "provide professional services"). With one small nonprofit, board members kept delegating various tasks to me despite the fact that I was technically "pro bono"...and this was without an agreement. People who provide professional services should be compensated. Speaking of which....
  • Everything is negotiable, but to a point - For smaller nonprofits/community organizations, perhaps there are resources you have in terms of expertise, space, etc that a professional might be able to use. But there is a limit: with one small organization, I provided three levels of service at three price points: one with intensive levels of service, one with an appropriate amount of service, and one with minimal. (Each level had an appropriate price point). This organization wanted the intensive level of service...at a minimal price point. Actually, they wanted half the minimal price point. That organization never became a client.
  • Free is almost always never freeMany cloud-based apps provide minimal features on a free basis, with some costs coming in later. Even open source software is the result of time and effort by many software developers. So sometimes, you do get what you pay for...and that the ability to pay for software can be a sign that your nonprofit/mission-based organization is healthy.

The problem of "free" is tricky in the nonprofit world, as the very nature of the work is often at odds with the idea that people need to be compensated, and that any service or solution has value. One of the key solutions is greater collaboration amongst nonprofits and other organizations, and greater access and openness (in other words, less "gatekeeping"). But it means that we need to have an open, honest dialogue about the issues, providing the latest - but never the last - word.

Some would argue that Wil Wheaton has opened a can of worms with his article. I believe he's given us a great opportunity for a critical dialogue. Let's make it so.

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