It's not often I take inspiration from comic book villains in my professional life, but I have to admit Heath Ledger's Joker struck a chord with his comment on the importance of valuing your skillset. For those less familiar, the quote goes: "If you're good at something, never do it for free". Now, I firmly believe it's our responsibility as professionals to ensure our craft - be it public relations, fundraising or copywriting - is appreciated, respected and, ultimately, valued. The same is true for many professions. Yet should this always be the case?
Common wisdom has it that offering something for free - especially when it comes to skills or services - devalues the offer. If something is free, what is its value? If it doesn't cost an organisation anything to access your skills, can they be that good? The converse of this thinking is: if it's expensive it must be good/worthwhile.
There is inevitably truth in both of these perspectives. Here's a good example: If you were offered a free palm reading, you might accept on the basis that it was free. But, chances are you're not going to place much value in the service. You'd be unlikely to pay for the service again if it then came with a price tag.
Equally, when it comes to certain goods or services, you really do get what you pay for. While they may cost you more in the short term, a good pair of boots will last far longer than cheap ones and likely save you money in the long term to boot (pun wholly intended).
Yet there are also plenty of exceptions to this rule. Just because something is inexpensive - or even free - doesn't mean it lacks value. Having spent a decent chunk of my career working in the third sector, I know this to be particularly true in the case of charities - especially small ones.
When budgets are modest and core charitable activities an understandable priority, there's often a lack of investment, capacity or necessary skills to build a public profile or maintain a consistent external voice. And in the face of this, I've seen first-hand just how much small organisations appreciate the support of external suppliers who are able to provide their services in an affordable way. Seeing this time and again over the past six years is one of the reasons I choose to offer pro bono support to small charities whenever I'm able to.
Plus, in contradiction of the 'free = devalued' mindset it's precisely because I value my skills and services that I offer them for free: I know the difference they can make. By charging fees that are prohibitive to smaller charities I would only devalue my services anyway, by way of making them out of reach and as a result, redundant.
Of course, we all have to make a living and I'm by no means criticising any individuals or agencies who charge as a matter of principle. But for me, operating as a consultant in the third sector is more than just a way to make a quick buck (for the record, it would also actually be a terrible way to make a quick buck from a business point of view).
Finally, there's also an argument for charging, as by providing free support there is the danger of creating a vulnerability or dependence for the organisation benefitting. It may not, after all, be sustainable. But, at least for the foreseeable future, I'm proud to be able to put the 'free' in 'freelancer' whenever I can.