Volunteering was always a part of my childhood. Both of my parents helped on committees, planned fundraisers, and worked to help people in our school and community. I have fond memories of drawing signs for events, visiting all the people in my great-grandmother’s nursing home, creating unending decorations, and serving pancakes or burgers. There is a lot to be learned from giving of yourself and even more to be gained. I’m thankful for those experiences I had growing up.
As an adult and a parent myself, I dove head-first into the world of volunteering for school and community. It was a good way to meet people, become familiar with the kids, parents, teachers, and businesses in the town we had just moved to. As an artist/volunteer it can be very easy to get in over your head and end up without any time for your own work. More importantly, giving away too much of your time and talent implies that your work isn’t worth paying for.
When trying to make a name for yourself, it can be very tempting to do things for free. You may assume that this will earn you respect or admiration from the people you are helping. People are of course thrilled with the generous donation of your artwork that you gave to their silent auction, the twenty hours you spent on their project for a fundraiser, or the designs you created to help them market their cause. Many of these donations are for wonderful groups, and do give back to the community in a valuable way. When you work for free, you can often call most of the shots on when and how something will be done as well. After all, what will they do if you can’t be there on Tuesday afternoon… not pay you?
If you are doing this unpaid work for recognition and respect however, you may be left feeling empty afterward. Often when a large unpaid project dominates your life for a few weeks, it throws your work-life balance completely out of whack. I have personally seen my family take a back-seat to my volunteer efforts several times. You may end up feeling like the reward of helping others doesn’t outweigh the stress you felt during much of the project. Unpaid work may end up taking more time than you originally thought, feeling like a burden to complete in a way you are proud to have your name on.
Giving your work away many times leads others to believe it’s easy for you. They may not know how much you give up and assume you can do as much or more for free in the future. After all, you did it last time and that worked out well for everyone didn’t it? Of course this leads to the undermining of all artists. If your work is free, why should anyone pay for work of that nature?
There is a fine line between helping others and hurting yourself as a professional artist. I am still learning to walk this line. The best advice I can give is to set up guidelines for the nature of work you are willing to commit to for free, and the kind of groups you are willing to donate your time and artistic talent to. Ask yourself several questions after a volunteer job before you commit to a new one. Did you enjoy the the work? Did you enjoy working with the people in this group? How did the project go overall? What could have been done better? Were you drained, rushed, or uncomfortable at all during the process? Did your donation provide something of real value to others? Did you feel appreciated and thankful to have been a part of it?
Most importantly, leave time and space for yourself to create and maintain your professional art practice. Leave room for friends and family, downtime, and for life itself. Go with your gut, and volunteer only for the things you will later be proud to have been a part of.