Why You Should Work For Free

Should you never work for free? Should you always turn down charities? Do you offer discounts or reduced rates for not-for-profit organizations? There are lots of things to consider when considering these types of shows.

The problem with free shows

  1. Often these show offers come with the promise of “great exposure”! While its true that there will be an audience that hasn’t seen you before, more often than not you aren’t going to end up directly booking more shows because you performed at their event.
  2. I’ve also found that for free shows they are more likely to be less organized. These events will be run by volunteers or people who are just trying to help out, but may be outside their element. You will need to take extra care to make sure that you get as much information as possible upfront, so that when you arrive you can put on an amazing show just as you would at any paid event.
  3. When donating a performance it will cost you money to perform at their event. You will still need to pay for gas, the wear on your equipment, and all of the consumables such as playing cards, rope, and flash paper.
  4. Make sure that when you accept a donated show that everyone else at the event is also donating their services. There’s nothing worse than donating your time to arrive at the event and find out that the reason that they couldn’t pay your fee is because they spent their money on food, bounce castles, etc. I only donate my services to events where everyone else is also donating their services. (Once upon a time I discount my show fee for an organization but when I arrived I found out that the reason they asked for a discount is because they had already spent the rest of their money on other activities. I only made that mistake once…)
  5. One of the biggest dangers of donating a show is that you will be giving up a date/time that you could have sold to somebody else. If this happens you not only lose the money you could have made, but its also costing you to perform at another event still. This is why I am very specific with the groups that I support. I have to be willing to not only donate a show for their group, but I also have to feel it was still worthwhile if I have to turn down a booking. Some performers will offer to do the show under the condition that they don’t receive another booking on that date/time. I would never ever do this– I feel its unprofessional because it shows that you don’t care about the success of their event. 

The benefit of free shows

Okay, so we can all agree that you’re giving up a lot by doing shows for free. So why would you ever do a show for free?

  1. It can be a great way to get practice and experience when you’re first starting out. Once you start getting good, stop doing free shows. It only hurts the market in your area for other professionals. 
  2. Often these groups will be able to provide advertising or other exposure. Have a pre written bio, a photos, and your logo all prepared in a presskit. They may also be able to link to you from social media, or include a link on their website to your website. Getting inbound links in our business is difficult so this is a good approach.
  3. If the show is for a free community events, local media will be all over it. Make sure you are visible and you may make it onto the evening news or into the newspaper.
  4. In your community there are probably prestigious charities and fundraisers. Performing at these events can be very advantageous. All of the guests at these events will be wealthy businessmen and influential community members. They’re well connected and in this case “great exposure” is a distinct possibility. Make sure you collect an amazing testimonial from them to use in your marketing materials.
  5. As entertainers we are very lucky to do something we love. I feel its important to give back to the people and the communities that we live in. I donate about 10 free shows a year to various organizations and charities that I consider worthwhile. Since I am a family entertainer, a majority of the organizations that I support are related to children’s charities. 
  6. Giving back to the community can also help you win local business awards (like these… haha)
  7. Make sure you get a testimonial and a photo of you performing at the event then use it in your marketing material. Have someone from the audience snap a photo on your smartphone and then use it on social media, your website, and in your newsletter.

“Thank you Leif for donating your services for the second annual Children’s Wish Walk for Wishes. You were wonderful to work with and everyone was thoroughly entertained! Your generous donation of your time and talent truly added to the day.” Katherine Spencer-Lim, Children’s Wish Walk for Wishes

How to gracefully decline requests for free shows:

You perform to pay your bills. Even if performing isn’t your full time job you can’t be giving away your services to everyone simply because they asked. So how do you politely decline their offer? 

I explain that I am a full time professional performer and that I earn my living by performing. Then I tell them that I only donate my services to specific charities each year and that I’ve already selected my charities for that year. I then follow it up by explaining the types of shows that I offer and the rates for each. I may also let them know about any not-for-profit rates that apply. I have turned many of these requests for donated shows into events where I receive my full fee or at least a portion of my fee.

Again, if you are going to perform for free make sure that everyone else at the event is also donating their services. It isn’t fair for only you to be doing it for free.

Personally I only donate close-up mingling magic, if I receive a request for a stage show I always turn it down. Stage shows require way more effort and it just doesn’t make sense for me to donate those types of shows any more.

Don’t feel like you’ve been taken advantage of by performing for free. Be smart, selective, and feel great about giving back to your community!