A few years ago, a stand-up comic I know and like made an interesting comment about a situation that I have experienced, and continue to face, with regularity. That situation- people who are organizing fundraising events for charities, or non-profits, ask if I would be prepared to appear at them without pay.
My fellow comedian had also been approached with requests to waive his fee for such events. His comment was, and I’m paraphrasing, “I always ask the organizer if they’re working for free.”
Considering these events do have budgets because they usually take place in banquet halls, with dinners, servers, deco, staging and AV, etc…, it’s fair to say that many other people are getting paid for their work on them. I don’t know what kind of answers he gets when he asks that question, but I’d be surprised if event organizers are, in fact, working for free. I also doubt the rental fee for the ballroom at the downtown hotel is waived, or the food isn’t paid for. Hmmm.
My historical approach has been to appear at such events unpaid, as long as the date is clear in my calendar. Sometimes I pay particular attention to the nature of the event and cause I would be supporting. But, while I have specific charities in mind when I make my personal financial charitable donations, I’m open to helping any worthy cause when I can. That has been my gut instinct. As a result, I have Hosted/MC’d, or entertained at countless fundraising events over the years. I don’t expect that to change.
But, my friend’s comment struck a cord.
Am I going to be the ONLY person working for free? There’s a term in the business called, “favoured nations”, which basically means if everyone else is getting some form of remuneration, so too should I, and it should be equitable. You don’t get the Top Sheet of the budget for these events, so it’s a question you ask in a vacuum with the assumption that the response will be honest. Anyway, a while back, because of his comment, I decided to try a new approach to requests for freebies.
Just a sec. It’s important to note that committing to a charity event means you could end up missing out on a juicy paid engagement that comes up. It’s a risk. This is why I do tend to put a cap on the number of non-paying events I commit to in any given month. Moreover, when I’m not available for a paid gig, my management company also loses money because they can’t book me. On top of that, they’re still doing work to coordinate my free appearance, which means they are also working for free. So, my free appearance affects the bottom line for other people. Plus, it’s also not unheard of that you agree to do an event for free, only to find that the organizers have expectations of custom work beyond the scope of the initial ask. Suddenly, you’re putting in additional hours instead of just showing up at the actual event itself and doing what you do best.
In any case, my new approach was: if I had a connection with the event or cause, and was available, I’d do it totally free. (I’d sometimes make the awkward ask that they pay for gas and parking; I mean, c’mon). Otherwise, I would commit at a “significantly reduced rate” for my appearance. That way my manager and agent aren’t completely at the mercy of my generosity. This seemed, for a while, to be a reasonable plan. I have had second thoughts.
I’m proud of what I do for a living. It adds value to events and provides great entertainment for audiences of all kinds. So, I absolutely have no reservations about being paid, whether it’s a charity event or not. Time is money and I value my time as an entertainment professional. I work hard, and I do an excellent job for the people for whom I commit to work. The advice I received years ago by other entrepreneurs, including Jack Canfield in person, was that I should assign a dollar value to my time. In becoming a trusted host who’s comfortable in front of audiences in a variety of situations, and in crafting a long set of clean, audience friendly stand-up comedy, the number of hours of my own time that I have spent over the past 25+ years is immeasurable. Arguably, I’ve already put in my fair share of “unpaid labour”. (When I am booked for a paid gig, by the way, that is the cumulative equity for which they are being charged the full fee; I digress).
In recent months, however, I have been reminded of just how fortunate I am in my chosen profession. What I offer in transactional value to other people is what falls into the category of “soft skills”. Sure, I have some overhead, like an office, computers, research supplies, freelance contractors I hire on occasion, as well as marketing and promotional materials and merchandise. Let’s not forget about the dollar value I assign to my time. But, the reality is, I can pretty much do what I do without anything else other than the physiological cells and brain waves that constitute my very self and soul. I usually don’t even have to have my own mic and lights to be heard and seen. When I think about it that way, I’m truly amazed I own a house and support a family of five.
Unlike many other individuals and organizations who have “hard” costs associated with the products or services they provide that they can’t simply waive, (food, tables and chairs, lights, deco, etc…) when it comes to “donating” my time, I am in a very enviable position. Okay, hang on; I acknowledge from a strictly accounting perspective, this might impact projected earnings with time devoted to other than paid contracts. It’s also true that from a strictly personal perspective, this is valued time away from my loving family and friends. Forget about those truths for the moment, because here’s what is absolutely amazing:
When it comes to my involvement with cause related events, I can inspire groups of people to help make the world a better place without it costing me a penny.
As with the next event organizer who might soon ask me to appear unpaid at their upcoming fundraising gala, I might also ask you the same question:
“Have you recently had a chance to work for free?
If you have an opportunity to do so, try it! I can tell you without hesitation, you should be so lucky.