Pro Bono Blues

Print More

Have you noticed? Money changes everything. Almost daily, I get into conversations about compensation and fairness. Sometimes I even start them. But whoever starts them, by the time they get going, there’s always so much gray area that I have trouble finding my way to daylight.
I’m interested to know what you think. Let me share a few stories and a few questions that may cast some light on the subject.
Work or play? I work with many other artists who care about social justice and planetary healing and want to do our part. We get asked to contribute in various ways. Will you perform at our event? Will you donate a piece to our auction? When everyone is being asked to contribute – not just artists – that can feel just fine. But often that’s not the case. The people who mastermind the event, who set up and run the tech, who create the advertising, are being paid, but the artists are asked to volunteer.
This difference reflects some real challenges for those who wish to give art and culture their true value, those who understand that artists’ creativity is needed to surmount overwhelming challenges, to nourish our collective resilience, social imagination, and empathy. It seems to reflect the popular notion that artists are having too much fun for what they do to really be considered work: Sure, I’d like to sing and dance all day and get paid for it too. It devalues artists’ contributions, ignoring what we now know about the ways that stories, images, metaphors, and participatory actions can change more minds than the wonky work of white papers (which is almost always compensated). It seems to short-change organizing strategy itself, treating artists’ work as mere embellishment rather than a powerful path to change. These are hard attitudes to alter, because they are deeply embedded in the common culture. What would you do to transform them?

Who’s benefiting whom? I’m involved in an activist arts project where everyone is contributing time – some of us tons of time – to foment a national conversation and action about art’s public purpose. We hope to raise money to do even more, but so far, volunteer labor is our biggest funding source, including not only the core team, but people across the U.S. who’ve volunteered to bring their communities together for visionary, art-infused conversations. They in turn have been seeking volunteers to help with local planning and logistics. Some of them got pushback: are volunteers being used to facilitate the work of an outside agency that gains at their expense? Is being asked to volunteer a form of exploitation? Shouldn’t they be paid?
These questions hint of a worldview that sees people as either bosses or bossed. Who can blame anyone for internalizing that view after a lifetime of watching the corporatization of absolutely everything colonize our national culture like the Borg? But it doesn’t fit everything. The paradigm for activism isn’t a business, it’s a movement or an organizing campaign where people pitch in to pursue a common interest. You don’t get paid for picketing a polluter or marching for civil rights. You do it to help bring about conditions that will benefit everyone. If you agree that this is a category error that’s becoming more pervasive, how does it get fixed?
What’s the currency? I just responded in the negative to my third invitation this year to contribute without compensation a chapter to a textbook. After saying yes to the prior two requests and putting so much work into the chapters, I began to feel the rub of being asked by people who are employed by universities (often with tenure, benefits, sabbaticals, and all the trimmings) to contribute my own work to a project that will be sold by a major university press. When I first began to write, I was thrilled to have my work published anywhere. But I don’t think you can squish hard enough to make me fit the category “emerging writer” today. I like it that my writing is valued for inclusion in books about community arts, cultural politics, and related subjects. My own books are taught in many university courses, but when they sell, I collect a small royalty; with these texts, editors (or institutions) generally get the royalties. How does someone like me, a public intellectual without portfolio, fit into the economics of such a project?
In academia, being published is in itself a desirable form of compensation. People may be in publish-or-perish mode or at least need publication on their resumes to compete for jobs or qualify for tenure. Writing and research are part of the professional package for those with faculty posts (different for adjuncts, of course), just like teaching classes or maintaining office hours for students. I don’t think the people who ask me to contribute my work have the slightest intention of exploitation. I know they are working hard – to high standards – for things we all value. But there’s a lack of awareness that any ethical challenge is engaged at all. I think it turns on academia’s reluctance to value lived knowledge as much as the credentialed kind. People get comfortable with the value system in which they’re embedded. Their own salaries and perks seem well-deserved; the differential in compensation and conditions just doesn’t come into the equation. Why isn’t it okay if everyone, the tenured and the community-based alike, publishes on the same terms?
No one more effectively characterized the blindness of systems than Anatole France: “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich and the poor alike to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.” I’d like to see every such project include a fund to compensate contributors who aren’t backed by an institution or well-funded organization. Perhaps it’s not feasible to pay full fees, but I’m guessing most of us would settle for less than perfection.
Apprenticeship, anyone? About a month ago, I wrote an essay calling out the condemnation of “Do What You Love” as a form of exploitation, citing my own apprenticeship as a visual artist back in the day:

I worked part-time jobs from the time [my father] died (I was 10) and taught myself what I wanted to learn. Before I was able to support myself with my artwork, I waited tables, sold gloves and hosiery in a department store, designed a coffee-shop menu and flyers for a real-estate business. I made posters for antiwar and civil rights groups, braiding my political and artistic commitments. As a novice in my field, I had to work for very little to establish that my work was worth paying for. I recognized all of these as common tradeoffs for the freedom to do what I loved.

The economics of living are very different now than when I was just starting out. Even allowing for inflation, it’s just about impossible to live on the 2014 equivalent of the pittance I earned in those days. The compensation pyramid has really changed too: friends’ kids going into hi-tech and other lucrative industries are earning starting salaries that amount to something like twice the money I’ve made in my best year so far – and complaining about expenses, because the must-haves in their world include expensive things like private schools which have morphed from luxuries into necessities in a culture swollen with entitlement.
I think this is part of the explanation for something I see more and more. People emerging from higher education come to me seeking career advice. I’m happy to share what I know, starting with a disclaimer that I’m not exactly the poster-child for economic security. But I’m often a little taken aback at expectations of compensation, job security, and so on in entry-level jobs. With some exceptions for the marble halls and red-velvet curtains world (and not even all of it), nonprofit salaries in arts work are modest. The expectation of a large salary, excellent perks, and so on is a normative idea of work grounded in the corporate universe which has become the model for all enterprise in today’s Corporation Nation.
But economic reality has multiple classes, like European railways. Sit in first class and you not only get the salary, benefits, stocks, gluten-free meals, and wifi-equipped commute by private bus, but the promise of more to come. Second class – retail, for instance, or working in a bank or insurance office – a livable wage and the opportunity to learn all about personal budgeting. Third class – all the jobs few people with options want to choose, plus being an artist, a teacher, and all the other jobs chosen out of passion for the work despite its conditions – well, you learn improvisation and resourcefulness and hope nothing disastrous happens. Is it a fair system? Of course not. The way work is valued is so distorted by now that the things we most need are the ones we are most reluctant to pay for. But what happens when this way of seeing work takes hold in the minds of those who could contribute to our collective stock of beauty and meaning? Sadly, the answer lies in all those arts graduates who’ve barely practiced their art since they succumbed to pressure and took jobs in another field.
There’s no typical in this story. My resume, for example, is a compendium of exceptions. Not counting the jobs I had in high school and a single year in the mid-70s, for my entire work-life I’ve been a freelance everything: first painter, then graphic designer, then antiwar activist, organizer, consultant, writer, editor, speaker – well, you get the picture. I’ve used paying work to support my own projects and the pro bono publico work I do for others.
Right now, I have two major pro bono commitments to national organizations that average a substantial percentage of my time; it varies month-by-month, but they add up to at least a quarter, often more. I’m also developing several book projects. That’s spec work, where you invest in research and writing and hope to interest a publisher (or decide to self-publish). I write shorter pieces about things that matter to me, some published in this blog and others in online and print journals. (The activist ones tend not to pay, most others pay a little, and a few pay professional fees.) I also do consulting and offer talks and workshops at a reduced rate for community-based organizations where everyone is pitching in and no one expects to be paid retail.
I’ve chosen this life, and while I’m not always thrilled about the economic consequences, I treasure my freedom of choice, I love living on the line between pleasure and purpose, and I usually manage to make ends meet. It’s a little discouraging, now that I seem to be an elder stateswoman in my professional realms, to encounter so many people who assume I no longer need to make a living. I have no plans to retire unless forced by circumstance (heaven forfend!), because I have no desire to stop doing what adds pleasure and meaning to my life, and what I hope also helps others. Plus I have a zillion new ideas cued up and a lifetime of experience that occasionally equals wisdom others can use! But the question of retirement is fairly moot even if I wanted to stop, because my choices have brought me more freedom than money.
My personal pro bono policy is pretty simple:

    1. I don’t work for free or token payment for major institutions with multimillion-dollar budgets nor for organizations that pay top-heavy salaries (my benchmark for chutzpah is the three-quarter million-plus compensation package for the top exec at the leading national arts advocacy group, which consistently expects artists to volunteer).


    1. I sometimes contribute speaking, consulting, or writing at a discount or without monetary compensation for organizations and causes I consider worthy, if their policy is to treat everyone the same. (If it turns out they are paying everyone but artists, for instance, no dice.) I make those decisions on a case-by-case basis: how much do I care about the issue? How interested am I in exploring the subject? How effective will a particular publication or conference be as a vehicle to put my ideas into circulation?


    1. When people are rising to do something collectively, something that matters to me, I feel a sense of collective ownership. Community organizing is often rooted in uncompensated work by people who may lack privilege, who passionately want change, and who are therefore willing to take on joint responsibility. I don’t see exploitation in that, so it’s easy for me to say yes.

After all this practice, I’m pretty good at taking care of myself, so I seldom have regrets about my choices. And I don’t mind being asked: I always tell clients, editors, and sponsors to be honest with me about what they can afford, and with a basis of trust and time permitting, we can find a way to make it work. So I’ve made a personal peace with one end of the equation.
But what about the other end? All those institutions and individuals who evidently haven’t engaged with the ethics of their own actions? What can be done to awaken them?
Here’s a plea from my friend Mighty Mo Rodgers, singing with the French blue harmonica player Jean Jacques Milteau: searching for a “Heart of Gold.”
[youtube: video=”Z6ec8NR-6OA”]