One Cause At a Time – Archive

An Archive of Chicago Now One Cause at a Time Posts

Archive for October 2015

Wil Wheaton, Nonprofits & the Problem of “Free”

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Like many other people on Facebook, I check out the “Trending” stories section – mostly in order to procrastinate. But a recent item written by writer/actor Wil Wheaton has received great attention…and has implications for nonprofits, social ventures, and community organizations in the Chicago area.

As a result of a piece about seven things he is doing to reboot his life, Wil Wheaton received an inquiry from the Huffington post about reposting that particular entry. When he asked about payment, the Huffington Post….well, let me just direct you to his account of what happened.

As a nonprofit professional, I have two very conflicting views about providing “free”/pro bono services, as well as some nonprofits’ attitudes towards taking on professionals.

Part of my conflict is that, by their very nature, nonprofits are not money-making ventures. (Any perceived “profit”, ideally, should go back into the organization for providing services and needs for its community). For many smaller nonprofits and other mission-related organizations, there simply are not enough resources, and often rely heavily on volunteer efforts. In fact, many smaller organizations often rely on less expensive options (such as open source software or cloud-based applications) as a way of minimizing their overall cost. So receiving free/pro bono services is a good thing. (And note – I also have and continue to volunteer for a variety of organizations and causes)

However, there is an increasing movement by many freelance professionals to assert their right to formal payment and compensation for their work (which is the main point of the Wil Wheaton article). The Freelancers Union – a nonprofit focused on insuring the rights of “independent workers” – runs a strong campaign behind the idea that “Freelance Isn’t Free”. (There’s even a great, if not-safe-for-work-due-to-profanity, video advocating for the idea of contracts that bolster professional relationships). Even some of my colleagues will often leap at the chance for “freebies” without necessarily thinking through the consequences. (One popular software package donates licenses to nonprofits, but the exchange is….minimal customer service, a heavy learning curve, and a need to educate staff on its proper use).  Even when seeking out clients, I always wince slightly when I hear a nonprofit say the words, “We can’t afford to pay you….”

As you can see, I have two different attitudes – I believe nonprofits should acquire the necessary resources to do their work, but I also think that this reliance on free services may actually hurt them in the long run. Focusing on price and “what-can-we-get-for-nothing” might result in an attitude of entitlement, thinking that they should get particular services because they are working in the common good.

(And to be fair – I’ve stretched many a nonprofit budget by stocking office supply cabinets through handouts at health fairs and trade shows)C Now - Workstation 02

So what’s the solution? And how does one handle these issues? For me, it’s keeping a few things in mind:

  • Volunteering is OK, but not as a full time job – Spending my free time volunteering to sharpen my skills and/or “give back” is a good thing, since my expectations are minimal. But for those who advocate volunteering in order to be “hired” by the same agency later on….it rarely happens. Nonprofits often rely on volunteers to accomplish various tasks, but making volunteering a “day job” can be unrealistic unless there’s an independent source of income.
  • When asked to perform pro bono work, I request a formal contract – Chalk this up to experience; having the same contract for volunteer work as for paid work insures that my time is being used well. (I’m differentiating between “things that a volunteer would do” and “provide professional services”). With one small nonprofit, board members kept delegating various tasks to me despite the fact that I was technically “pro bono”…and this was without an agreement. People who provide professional services should be compensated. Speaking of which….
  • Everything is negotiable, but to a point – For smaller nonprofits/community organizations, perhaps there are resources you have in terms of expertise, space, etc that a professional might be able to use. But there is a limit: with one small organization, I provided three levels of service at three price points: one with intensive levels of service, one with an appropriate amount of service, and one with minimal. (Each level had an appropriate price point). This organization wanted the intensive level of service…at a minimal price point. Actually, they wanted half the minimal price point. That organization never became a client.
  • Free is almost always never free – Many cloud-based apps provide minimal features on a free basis, with some costs coming in later. Even open source software is the result of time and effort by many software developers. So sometimes, you do get what you pay for…and that the ability to pay for software can be a sign that your nonprofit/mission-based organization is healthy.

The problem of “free” is tricky in the nonprofit world, as the very nature of the work is often at odds with the idea that people need to be compensated, and that any service or solution has value. One of the key solutions is greater collaboration amongst nonprofits and other organizations, and greater access and openness (in other words, less “gatekeeping”). But it means that we need to have an open, honest dialogue about the issues, providing the latest – but never the last – word.

Some would argue that Wil Wheaton has opened a can of worms with his article. I believe he’s given us a great opportunity for a critical dialogue. Let’s make it so.

Speaking of dialogue – please free to start the conversation via our Facebook page or in the comments below. You can receive updates via e-mail (instructions below), or contact me personally via the About page.

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Written by gordondym

October 30, 2015 at 11:12 am

Blog Action Day 2015

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Every year, this blog participates in Blog Action Day, a global effort to drive conversation around a given topic. This year, bloggers are being asked to focus their Blog Action Day 2015 post around the theme “Raise Your Voice”, with a specific focus on blogging. In many other countries, there are efforts to silence dissent, to stifle free speech, and to bring visibility to critical issues. But this week, I’m taking a slightly different approach to discussing blogging.

In our current media culture – and especially in Chicago – we’re rather indifferent to the power of blogging, and that needs to change.  Immediately.

You may think that my statements are a bit self-serving – after all, I’m a blogger for Chicago Now (and have blogged personally for about eleven years), but blogging can be a critical outlet – many platforms are free, it’s a great way to establish a voice, and can be critical in driving conversation. Blog Action Day’s focus in 2015 is about challenges to bloggers, but I want to take a slightly different approach, especially when it comes to social benefit and social good in Chicago.

I think we should encourage blogging for both community-based organizations – and their constituents – as a way to raise their voices toassure they are heard, and more importantly, help develop stronger digital literacy skills throughout the metropolitan Chicago area.

Most non-profit and/or social enterprise blogging consists mainly around fundraising, marketing, or other functions ….but far too often,
smaller, more grassroots-based, smaller organizations lack even the basic resources. In addition, technology can be incredibly intimidating formany community residents. There can even be huge communication gaps between nonprofit/social benefit organizations, corporate/ business partners looking to develop partnerships, and residents/recipients of nonprofit services. In short, potential community collaborations are hindered not by larger forces, but by a fundamental inability to communicate with each other. Annual reports can be wonderful for a nonprofit, but community members can – and should – be given a greater voice outside of a two-sentence

And the most important thing – we need more diverse voices in blogging. One of the many organizations I collaborate with openly advocates for diverse voices in spectulative fiction – that a greater pool of diverse writers (race, gender, sexual orientation, etc) will result in a broader spectrum of fiction, but more importantly, a more diverse range of voices will be heard that were previously held back. As a great first step towards digital literacy, blogging allows for people (and organizations) to articulate their experiences in a way that they would not have previously had before. Moving towards digital excellence – the ability of underserved communities and populations to engage and use technology and digital tools – is critical for Chicago’s economic and community development, and blogging might be the best first step. (And if you’re not aware of all the great activities happening that are driving digital excellence in Chicago….you need to read this blog more often.)

Blogging isn’t a cure-all, by any means, but it’s a great first step….but many people are intimidated by the process. As part of Blog Action Day,
my goal will be to address some questions about blogging – the kind of questions that hold people back. Questions like:

How much will it cost to start and run a blog? – Some platforms like and Blogger are free to use and will host your posts. (WordPress also has a more full-blooded content management system – – where you would have to purchase
hosting, which means that another server would hold the actual files of your blog. For a domain (or the, most reputable domain registrars charge about $10 – 15/year. You would have to configure it yourself (or “tell the domain where your files are”), and that leads to our next question:

How will I do all this technical stuff? – Most platforms have an FAQ (or “frequently asked questions”) file that provides insight, or you can simply search on a question and find plenty of documentation files. (For example, click on the link for “how do I configure my blog domain?“)

But I’m not a very good writer – how will blogging help?  Can you take photos? Video? Blog posts do not necessarily have to be verbal, nor do you have to be a great writer. Blogging is about raising your voice and speaking your truth in your own way. If it means taking photos or doing a video blog (like Jay Smooth), you and/your organization have a way of standing for your truth.

Do I need to blog every day? No – you can do weekly or biweekly posts, but just blog regularly. (And yes, I do need to take my own advice, don’t I?) Carving out an hour a day to write can be a challenge….but it’s a challenge that brings great rewards.

Blog Action Day 2015 is focusing specifically on efforts to stifle those voices that are using blogs to be heard. Blogs are one of the more underutilized digital tools in getting the word out about the greater community….and my hope is to assist those voices in being heard.

Your thoughts? Leave them in the comments section below or join us via  Facebook. You can receive updates via e-mail (instructions below), or contact me personally via the About page.

And as always, thanks for reading!

Type your email address in the box and click the “create subscription” button. My list is completely spam free, and you can opt out at any time.