Fundraising 4: Free Services for Pagan Events

3570095_xlOne of my great regrets as a Pagan organizer is that when I run an event, I’m often asking people to present or perform for free. Granted–I’m often presenting for free myself. But I still feel that people offering up a professional skill should be paid for their work.

Yet, I know how much most regular Pagan events pull in financially. I know that an event without a big name will probably bring in just enough to pay expenses.

On the other hand, I meet a lot of people, including Pagan organizers, that assume that any Pagan should offer their skills and talents for free, and I’m not ok with that. But how do we negotiate the gray area on this?

Some readers, performers, and presenters are happy to donate their time. Many of them can’t contribute financially to the event, but they can donate their time. In fact, several members of my own community in Chicago can’t afford to donate financially toward an event, however, they come early to help me set up, and stay late to help me clean up.

I think as members of a community that that is a fair contract–people offer their time and services, and help build a stronger community that they themselves are invested in, and that in term serves them. I’ve traveled and taught for free, and I’ve paid out of pocket for gas money, plus car repairs. I’ve paid out of pocket to teach at Pagan Pride events, I pay to travel to Pagan conferences, I pay for hotel out of pocket. As I’ve mentioned in past articles, even when I travel and teach for the cost of gas, there’s the “cost” of car maintenance.

And over time, I’ve gotten to a place where I cannot teach for free. If it’s local and there’s no big travel cost, and I want to support a community initiative–sure. I can do that. But, I can’t afford to drive a few hours and eat the cost of gas and car maintenance. I wish I could, but I can’t.


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Free isn’t Free
So I think that the first thing an event coordinator needs to be aware of is that free isn’t free. If a band comes and plays at your event, there’s the cost of travel, the hassle of moving equipment, dozens of other factors. I’ve seen a few great memes on Facebook about how many venues will tell a band, “Oh, you should do my bar for $0 or for $__ pittance, because it’ll get you great exposure.”

That band is still racking up a cost by playing, particularly if any travel is involved. For many living the “starving artist” lifestyle, that’s really not too far from the truth. That $5 or $10 (or $100) in gas money is more than their monthly budget allows for.

I have people all the time say, “Oh, my event is just over in ___, and it’s a free event so I can’t pay you, but it’ll be good exposure.” Well…it is good exposure. Maybe. But I may literally not have the $30 to get there and back.

So when you’re considering asking someone to offer their services at your event for free, first take into account what they might be paying out of pocket. And, perhaps that’s an area of negotiation; maybe they would be able to play your event (or take pictures, or read cards) if you were able to provide them travel money. Also consider proactive ways that you can promote that professional and their work to help make the event worth their while.

It’s at least a place to start.

Reasons to do an Event for Free
There are certainly times when it does make sense for someone to do an event for free, whether that’s a band, a reader, a photographer, or a presenter like myself.

  1. If it’s a really great promotional opportunity for me as a band/writer/artist/teacher that will ultimately bring me paid income
  2. If I have a significant investment in a particular community and that’s a way that I can donate my energy. Perhaps a group where I wish I could tithe money to but instead I can offer my services.

When to Ask for People to Donate Their Time
There are times when I ask people if they are willing to do readings at fundraiser events. Or when I ask people to perform as dancers or musicians for free, or to teach workshops for free. I only do this if it’s not going to be a significant outlay of money for them, and if they are willing, and if they have at least some investment in the community. I also may have to squeeze a little money out of the event budget to at least cover their costs.

**As a quick aside, I’m operating under the assumption that I’m talking about presenters, bands, performers, readers, or other professionals who would not necessarily be headliners. If we’re talking about a person or group that are a big draw on their own, that’s a different  contract entirely.

It’s possible that a professional or group might be willing to donate their time for a local cause, but probably only if they have a significant investment in that local community. As an event organizer, I really do hate asking people to donate their time when they are doing work that they should be getting paid for. But then, I hate asking people to pay for classes I teach. I value my time and my work, and yet I know times are tough and I want everyone to have the opportunity to take workshops and attend events.

All I can say is that I’ve been on both sides of it, and it’s walking a tightrope. I wish there was some other financial model that allowed for enough abundance, but sometimes it’s just a numbers game. There needs to be enough people in a community to support an event or a class, and for so many Pagans, there just isn’t.

Entertainment and Big Names
On the other hand, in some areas, a big entertainment-focused event can work as an effective fundraiser. There’s that saying that you have to spend money to make money, and it really is true. When you can afford a better venue, and when you can afford a good DJ or a good band, or a burlesque troop, and afford a good graphic designer to make your promotional materials promoting event…when you have a few thousand dollars to actually put on a big event, you can actually draw in a nice profit and use that to fund future activities.

Similarly, bringing in a bigger name presenter can be a big draw. I’ve worked with a few pretty big names, and for some of them I was convinced that there was no way we were going to be able to pay their fee and travel expenses and the venue. However, for the big names, miraculously people find that $25 or $100 or $200 to attend the event.

Now–I’m not going to get into the angst some Pagans have around the idea of “big name Pagans.” All I will say is, there are some big names that have earned that status because they are freaking amazing teachers, and having the opportunity to take a class with them is more than worth it. These teachers are finite resources–they can only travel so much, and, they will only live so long.

There are other big names that are not worth the time or the money. Figuring that out can be tricky, however, that’s part of why I recommend that any local organizer looking to bring in big names should go to some of the big Pagan conferences to get a feel for what some of those big names offer as far as their skill leading workshops and rituals.

When you are promoting an event to your local community and you are able to say, “I’ve seen Starhawk present in the past and she does amazing work,” that personal testimonial will make people stop and think about it, vs. just, “Oh, another workshop.”

I find that it’s very important to be able to get behind the presenters I’m bringing into town and be able to personally recommend them. I’m not going to bring in a big name just to bring in a lot of money.

It’s worth mentioning at this point that when you bring in a big name band or a presenter for either something like a concert or a witches ball, or for a weekend class, you have to charge more because the band/teacher has a cost. And thus, many of the people in your community who are low income will not be able to afford to attend.

In my case, I generally try to balance this out by offering entertainment events that have a firm cost, and educational events that have scholarships or sliding scale. But sometimes, I just have to charge a flat fee.

This is a difficulty that can better be negotiated through fundraising–if our group has a “kitty” of money and we can pay out of that fund to offer a few scholarships for 2-3 people who are highly active volunteers, that negotiates that pretty well, if I’m able to do something like that. Or, I can negotiate for a few work-exchange slots for people to help out with an event by taking volunteering roles.

Sometimes that works. Sometimes it doesn’t. I’ve heard of numerous examples of events that went out of their way to offer work exchange for volunteers where the volunteers didn’t actually do any work, but still got to attend the class or event.

At some point I’ll probably do a longer post on negotiating work exchange, because it really does need to be contracted out.

And ultimately, as an event coordinator, you’re still left with the struggle of paying your professionals–whether they are a big name or not–and getting enough money in the door to make the event financially sustainable.

Breaking Even
At most Pagan events that I run (ie, small classes and sabbats), it’s been my experience that I’m usually barely able to break even past my rental expenses. I usually have a little bit of money for event food, ritual supplies, costs. Sometimes not.

I’ve found that concerts with more well-known Pagan musicians seem to bring in far more money. There, I make enough money to pay my venue rental, pay my musicians, and put a little in the kitty. The surplus from having SJ Tucker and Sharon Knight in Chicago for Lughnassadh paid for my venue rental for the Samhain ritual, which did not, unfortunately, break even.

And while there are some general event planning patterns that can help any Pagan out there looking to offer events that bring in enough money, a lot of it depends greatly on the region. In some areas, it’s nothing to have to drive an hour or even two hours to get to a Pagan event and people are used to it. In Chicago, if that sabbat ritual isn’t on someone’s train line, it’s unlikely they’re going to attend.

Theoretically in Chicago there are thousands of Pagans, and yet I often get far better attendance when I travel to a rural area. So some of this is knowing about event planning and what will bring in revenue–and some of it is knowing your local community. How far will people travel? How much are they willing to pay for a class? How much are they willing to pay for a concert or ball?

Ultimately my goal is for Pagans to have access to more financial resources. It takes money to make money, and some of the resources we want in our communities have a cost associated. If we have access to more money as a community, we can afford some of those resources, like training for Pagan clergy, or general Pagan education, or dedicated Pagan community centers, or Pagan advocacy groups.

And what is also important is paying our professionals for their time, instead of asking them to offer their skills for free.

When someone donates their time to an event/cause, it’s exactly that–it’s a donation, it’s an offering. It’s an exchange. Maybe an event coordinator is asking me to donate my time. Or, maybe I’m asking them to donate their time.

Any time you’re asking someone to donate their time it should not be an expectation. I would say that as a Pagan teacher, what has upset me the most is the expectation that not only will I teach for free, but when someone assumes I’ll pay out of pocket to travel to XYZ event for free.

It should never be an expectation. I donate my time to events and causes I believe in and want to support, even though I can’t do so financially. For instance, I pay to attend Pagan Spirit Gathering, even though I teach there, because that is my “tithe” to Circle. PSG is a fundraiser that raises money for Circle’s operating costs for the year.

But, any Pagan organizer asking for something like that should understand that that is what they are asking for, not that performers “should” just perform for free, or that readers should automatically donate their time.

Ultimately, this is why a lot of Pagan organizers burn out–negotiating all that is a lot of work. Typically, it’s a lot of unpaid work. Most people only have so much juice for it until they get sick of the endless tightrope walking. Similarly most Pagan performers get pretty sick of being asked to perform for free.

I don’t know the answers for how to bring more revenue into the Pagan community. It sure as heck isn’t bake sales. It’s something I think about a lot, because, if we had a little bit more money to work with, we’d be able to pay more of our professionals and have event budgets that were actually viable. And the more events that we can offer to our communities, the stronger our communities will be.

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