Pro Bono Art: Should You or Shouldn’t You?

By Carrie Lewis in Misc > Art Opinion

Should artists give away their time and talent? Unfortunately in this case, there’ isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer.

Certainly there will always be charitable organizations and other groups and individuals more than happy to use contributed artwork for fundraising purposes. So the opportunity is always there, and it’s a question that comes up quite often.

Some time ago, I wrote an article sharing two questions every artist should ask before donating artwork to charity. (If you missed it I encourage to you take a look.) But one thing I didn’t address in that article was the advantages and disadvantages of doing pro bono work.

What is pro bono work?

Wikipedia tells us that “Pro bono publico” is a Latin phrase which means “for the public good.” It’s usually shortened to pro bono and encompasses any kind of “professional work undertaken voluntarily and without payment or at a reduced fee as a public service. Unlike traditional volunteerism, it is service that uses the specific skills of professionals to provide services to those who are unable to afford them.”

Lawyers often do pro bono consulting for clients who cannot afford to pay for services. Sometimes doctors, dentists, and other medical staff do pro bono work either at home or on mission trips.

Artists can also do pro bono work. Teaching classes, tutoring, personal critiques, or even donating paintings or other works of art. It’s not something most artists consider doing, but it is something I think most of us should consider.

And, while the focus of this article is on contributing actual artwork, there are other ways to provide pro bono creative help. You can give a class or lesson at no charge. You can donate supplies or materials or consult on worthwhile projects.

Offering services that are related to art may also be a way you can give back or “pay it forward.”

Why consider pro bono work?

Not all charitable causes are suitable to every artist. But every one of us can find at least one cause that we support with all our minds, all our hearts, and all of our. . . art.

If you’re like me, there are times what you want to do something to help someone, but you just don’t have the ready cash to do so. Art is what you have available to give, and so you do. Here are just a few things you might get back in return:

1. Personal satisfaction

Helping someone else with no expectation of a return favor has an intrinsic, though often intangible value. Not only are you helping the other person or people, but you’re of yourself, in a way that cannot be duplicated in work-for-hire or work for sale. The emotional boost can be—and sometimes is—more satisfying than earned income.

2. Adding value

Giving work away can be a great way to bless someone with something they wouldn’t otherwise have access to due to cost or other factors. It’s a simple luxury that adds value to their lives.

3. Honoring memories

It can also be a way to honor the memory of a person, place, or pet. I’ve lost track of the number of pet portraits I’ve painted posthumously at no charge. That kind of memento of a beloved pet is worth more than money.

4. Building community

People who support the same organizations or charities now have a connection with you. It gets you out of the isolation of the studio and into the real world. That’s good for you in ways that can’t be counted in dollars and sense.

5. Positive public relations

Lest you get the idea that giving of your time and talent provides only intangible rewards, consider this: doing pro bono work is also good for your business, as long as you choose your beneficiaries wisely.

If you give artwork or services to help the local animal shelter, for example, that’s not only good for the animals at the shelter, but it encourages those who work at the shelter and others who support the shelter, AND it may also open doors with those individuals that would otherwise remain closed to you.

Others who support the local animal shelter and who are interested in art will not only know of you because of your donation; they are more likely to come to you for any artwork they wish to buy.

Now. . . here are some “cons” to pro bono work

1. Cost of doing business

The obvious reason is cost. It takes time to produce artwork and it can be expensive. You’re giving away your materials, supplies, and talent—all of which are valuable and limited resources—without any certainty of getting anything in return.

2. Lost time

The time you put into free work is no longer available for paying work. If you’re a portrait artist, this is a major consideration, especially if your calendar is already well-booked. But even for an artist who doesn’t do portrait work, the hours put into pro bono artwork always takes away from salable work.

3. Damaged professional reputation

If you donate work to a lot of organizations or charities, you may get the reputation for giving away your work. That could damage your marketability. People who might buy your work could be tempted to wait for the next donation

4. Devaluing your work

If you give away enough work, you may end up devaluing the work you currently have for sale. After all, why should anyone buy anything from you when they can be pretty sure you’ll be giving something away?

In the end, it all comes down to preference. Do you want to give away your time and talent, or not? There are as many reasons to consider as it as there are to avoid it.

But, as I mentioned in my previous article, partnering with an organization you believe in, or with individuals who will truly benefit from your work, may be the best thing you ever do for your business. . . and for yourself.


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