This last fortnight has been hugely busy. In a good way. Stories commissions rolling in, including for my Queensland trip, which starts today. Pitching more than normal. Enjoying the positive feedback on the blog (thanks guys, always appreciated!). Mentoring sessions apparently hitting the mark, which feels very satisfying. Wrapping a couple of courses at the Australian Writers’ Centre and starting new ones. Keeping editors happy by meeting my deadlines. Enjoying the rewards of building relationships with a couple of new editors. Phew. Okay, that’s a lot, even for me!
But in amongst there I’ve been doing quite a bit of volunteering.
I spent last weekend handing out kindness cards at The Dalai Lama’s talk in Sydney. I’ve long loved the kindness cards – they are a kind of ‘pay it forward’ scheme encouraging anonymous acts of kindness. So when the chance came to volunteer and hand out free cards to the 11,000 folks coming to hear the Dalai Lama speak in Sydney, I jumped at it.
I’ve also managed to squeeze in two half days completing my volunteer training at Sydney’s Asylum Seekers Centre. I’m going to help out with their employment assistance program – matching employers to people needing jobs. Looking forward to that. (Quick aside: Let me tell you – nothing like this to keep me grounded: Hanging up the phone from a conversation about which luxury resort I’ll be staying at in the Queensland rain forest, to sitting down five minutes later to spend four hours learning about the realities of those living as an asylum seeker. It’s an important reminder to me that my life is extremely privileged, in so many ways.)
It’s all got me thinking about the delicate balance of giving away your time. When should we do things for free? And when should we charge?
I think the devil lies in the detail.
Some of the things listed above I charge good money for:
- I charge for mentoring to freelance writers wanting to fast track their success or just get out of a ‘stuck’ period.
- I get paid to teach people how to write.
- I get paid to write for magazines and newspapers. (I don’t write for free, unless there’s a specific, strategic benefit in doing so. It’s a rarity. Although maybe I’ll start doing selected guest blog posts – that sounds like it could be fun.)
- I get paid to speak at conferences or be an event MC. Usually these are focussed on areas of my expertise – writing, working smarter, environmental stuff, etc.
While in other circumstances you get me completely for free:
- I give away tips for freelance writers on the blog. My plan is to keep doing this, so the free advice will keep on coming as long as you guys keep on reading!
- I give away additional advice by answering any questions posted in the blog’s comments section (good to know, yes?)
- I offer students on my courses at the Australian Writers’ Centre my time free at the end of each session in case they want to talk through any specifics. (“I’ll stay till you drop” is my motto.) I also answer every question thrown at me if you’re in one of my online courses.
- I often drop by the private Facebook group exclusive to grads of these courses and give my two cents worth, although frankly, those guys do a great job of helping each other out, so mostly, they don’t need me there, IMO!
- Outside of work, I give my time to selected organisations where I think I can contribute. (Currently full as we’re also on verge of success in starting my local community garden, and I’m the group’s chairperson.)
The art of all this? Knowing why you are doing each. And knowing the difference.
A while ago, I decided I needed to more proactively CHOOSE where I gave my expertise for free, and where I charged for it. And as you can see from the list above, I do lots of both, but in all examples I’m clear in my own mind about ‘why’ each item falls on a particular side of the fence.
For example, why do I charge for mentoring freelance writers on one hand but give advice away to freelance writers on the other hand?
Well, mentoring started because I was being inundated with requests via email from new freelance writers wanting 1-1 advice. Mostly, people wanting targetted strategic advice on where to spend their precious freelance writing time and energy, and suggestions on how to do things more efficiently. Often, mentees have me read their work (stories or pitches) and offer my opinion. It’s like getting the ear of an editor, but in advance. I love doing all of this, but most people don’t realise I get lots of questions every week, so fitting it all in ad hoc didn’t work.
I needed to work smarter, so I now allocate time for this and charge for it. Charging for mentoring let’s me fit it in, and help more people, consistently. For those who can’t or don’t want to pay for mentoring, I figure, no problem, I’ll give you heaps of my ‘brain’ for free (for example, on my blog). Of course, there’s a difference in the information in each case. 1-1 mentoring is very personal. It’s absolutely specific. My other advice (say, on my blog) is a bit more general. Nonetheless, doing both helps me feel good about the balance.
Everyone will have a different answer on what is right or wrong. The balance I’ve chosen lets me help as many people as possible in the short term (for free or for money), while ensuring my business is sustainable in the long term (by charging for certain things).
Does free = selfless? I think not.
It’s also important to be honest with yourself that the ‘free’ stuff you do doesn’t mean you are ‘selfless’. It could actually be selfish! (But if it’s helping everyone, maybe that’s okay too.)
Let’s look at my writing coaching and mentoring. Is is selfless of me to give you all this free advice? Well, maybe. It definitely comes from a place of me wanting you to succeed. I’ve had others do this for me, and I like being able to give back. Plus, I don’t want to live in a world where no-one helps each other, so that has to start with me. Lastly, I firmly believe there’s enough work out there for everybody, so why not help others get their own dream job too? Sounds selfless when I put it like that, right? But let’s also recognise: doing it for free allows you to better imagine what I might be able to do for you if you paid. If you like my free (selfless) advice, maybe one day you’ll book a mentoring session. See. Selfish.
Of course, it’s easy to posit that I’m also selfless by helping at the Asylum Seekers’ Centre, or giving away cards at the Dalai Lama event. But you know what? Volunteering is great for the soul – I’ve written enough about health and wellbeing to know that. So there’s a selfish personal health reason in my seemingly selfless act. As for the Dalai Lama, well sure, the card giving is selfless, but selfishly, I also wanted to hear the Dalai Lama speak again (it’s been a few years since I’ve done this), and as a volunteer, I get a free ticket. (Free minus the eight hours required for the volunteering component, minus $20 for the tshirt I need to buy, but you get the drift.)
See? Selfish. Selfless. Not so clear. You need to get really honest with yourself. It’s important. Trust me, you’ll feel good about it. I do.
What’s your own balance? Do you give away your time or skills? Do you think it’s selfless or just smart?
If you give away your expertise, do you have boundaries around this?