Is it acceptable to give free services to an organisation or individual that should have the money to pay?
I considered this question recently in a positive and robust discussion about providing pro bono professional services to not-for-profit organisations.
This is the sort of work that feeds my family, so I was naturally interested. In fact I have to admit I was interested to the point of being passionate, emphatic and probably even vehement.
Actually, you could say I had something of a hissy fit.
Pro bono means for public good, so that phrase means people and organisations that can’t afford the services on offer. In my observation, the local governments, sporting clubs, industry bodies and most of the not for profit groups in Geelong have lots of staff and many have annual grants beyond the million dollar mark.
In that context I think providing services without fees is not helpful.
I’m not talking here about helping someone out, providing advice, or supporting a cause that you believe in. Nor do I mean volunteering, which is worthy of a separate discussion about the nature and value of work – paid and unpaid. Voluntary efforts are clearly well ingrained in our regional culture, the people here are exceptionally generous with time and money.
My focus is on specific projects or pieces of work. Marketing communication is a typical example, but document writing, architectural input, community development and a range of trade skills are also fairly common. These sorts of jobs are regularly bandied about by clubs, councils and charities where people perform ‘honorary ‘ roles or assist informally out of business hours.
I can think of two dozen friends straight off who would appreciate a job in Geelong. Instead, they have to go to Melbourne or elsewhere because ‘there is not enough work here.’
I challenge that. There is plenty of work to be done, the question is whether it’s being identified, valued properly, advertised effectively or completed well.
When Geelong can boast the international reputation for liveability and the nationally recognised brand of excellence that it deserves, we can say the standard of marketing is high. If there was a well-promoted and focused regional strategy and system for true governance and accountability, I wouldn’t suggest strategic communication is absent from the mix.
The idea of positive work opportunities goes right through to flowers on roundabouts, rubbish-free streets, tidy buildings, weeds eradicated from public and private land, a network of neat trails, creatively lit parks, modern and interesting signs. Just looking around, I see plenty to do.
I suspect much isn’t being done, or done well, because many services are not understood or valued. Is this because they are often given away? It’s only by investing in quality that will we see higher standards.
In quality terms, working for nothing - typically on top of a normal workload – does not usually produce the best result. It is not the most considered, informed, thorough or creative offering. It is also tricky to critique and challenge when it’s been provided for free. And when it’s not valued or appreciated it’s a no-win.
The best efforts involve research, collaboration, time for creativity and a responsible system of documentation.
The single most important issue that I’ve seen for the Geelong region is employment. The impact of limited employment opportunities makes both broad and deep cuts across the region.
There seem to be many highly skilled, passionate, qualified and clever people who are underpaid and underworked. I used to think it was just the intelligentsia on the Bellarine that is sucking it up for the lifestyle tradeoff. Apparently not.
Anecdotal reports include not enough work, cronyism where ‘Geelong is a closed shop’, uncompetitive salary levels and too few senior roles.
With the transition away from traditional manufacturing and the looming sale of Shell, I have heard that technicians face lower pay and/or less stimulating work if they are to stay in the area. There are similar issues across skilled trades and professional services.
In this environment, the idea of a charity group, local government or anyone else with funding receiving free services has a major impact on both employment opportunities and quality standards.
Tempting though they can be, contra deals are fraught with potential disaster because one person’s apple is a useless pear to someone else. A bartering system has merit, but only when it is well-planned and regulated.
Money is our currency for a reason. We cannot spend favours at the greengrocer. Goodwill does not pay the electricity bill.
Everyone deserves the opportunity to work and be paid. There will always be a few people at either end of the employment spectrum – those who never work and those who spend every waking moment obsessed with work.
For most of us, striking the balance is the challenge.
And while a few favours can be fine, when the search for free work is endemic it lowers the bar on standards.