The following is a guest article written by Jacob Weiss, PhD, of Playing By Air Productions:

When organizing a charitable function, consider event professionals to be valued donors and sponsors. Focus on building long-term relationships with vendors who are passionate about supporting your organization. These professionals will continually exceed your expectations and can be an advocate for you throughout the year (not to mention you’ll be able to support them as small business owners in the process!)

With a bit of extra effort, and an outlook toward building mutually beneficial relationships, you can connect with incredible vendors in your community while staying within your event’s budget. Here’s a closer look at how your charity can develop its own approach…


1. How do I go about requesting an event professional to donate his or her time?

Just like approaching a major sponsor or donor, begin with a mindset that empathizes with the vendor's point of view, before making the request. Take stock of your vision for the event, the audience size, your overall event budget, and any portions of the budget set aside for each type of vendor, as well as how much each might cost at their full fee.

Then ask yourself, "What would motivate me to donate my own time, paycheck, and valuable professional expertise to a charity, while I'm working hard to make ends meet building my own career?"

If you’ve allocated a larger budget for some vendor expenses (e.g. venue rental, catering) but are asking others to donate their fees and services (e.g. entertainment), you run the risk of slighting the latter party. Sincere respect for every vendor’s time and work will go a long way towards getting each of them on board.


2. We can’t afford to pay the vendor, but is there something else I can offer as compensation for their work?

Think of the vendor as an in-kind sponsor for your event. If a band's fee is $4,000 and they are donating their entertainment, offer them the benefits of a $4,000-level sponsor. For example, your compensation to them might include:

  • Ad placements for the vendor on any event signage or handouts;
  • Networking opportunities with key players on the charity’s board;
  • Coverage with any press in attendance;
  • Professional photos or footage of the vendor in action for his or her promo reel (if photographer/videographer is scheduled to be in attendance);
  • Reimbursement for travel and food expenses.

Simply offering "exposure" is a red-flag for many vendors, and it can feel like an effortless gesture. By putting together a package of tangible perks in lieu of their standard rate, you’ll be demonstrating upfront that you respect their time as a professional. Most importantly, don't be afraid to ask the vendor what would be the most helpful for them in their own business and career.


3. I’m afraid I’m going to scare off the vendor as soon as I mention the words “work for free.” Is there a right or wrong way to position my request?

When you put forth a sincere desire to make the event a win-win for both your charity and the vendor, the vendor is less likely to be turned off by your request. Even if they can't help with a certain event, they will be more likely at that point to offer helpful suggestions and recommendations.

Position your request by thoughtfully conveying that you will go above and beyond to provide tangible value for the vendor (see #2) in return for a discounted fee or in-kind sponsorship.

On a related note, the IRS does not allow vendors to deduct donated fees on their taxes for pro bono services (only certain hard expenses), so offering to provide a certificate for a tax write-off may not actually benefit the vendor.


4. How much of their time is it acceptable to ask a vendor to donate?

Your conversation with the vendor will shape the eventual level of donation to be agreed upon. While you may have wanted them there for an all-day event, consider limiting your request to a contained block of time (it’ll look a lot less daunting for the vendor who’s volunteering!) In the end, you’ll want to consider the value of the services being provided and adjust your time requests accordingly.

Note: Certain professionals may be more hesitant to donate their services for an event far in advance because they may get an important paying gig on that date. When securing pro bono vendors months in advance, always have a backup plan should they ultimately opt out. And remember to regularly check in with your vendor(s) in the weeks and days leading up to the event to ensure all parties are still on board.


5. Is there anything else I should keep in mind when working with a vendor who’s volunteering at my event?

It can take a lot of time, energy, and stress to seek out new partners for every event that you host. Your charity will be a lot more effective by finding— and keeping— trusted partners that you can count on. Don’t hesitate to go the extra mile when it comes to working with volunteer vendors. Carefully assemble a compensation package that’s within your charity’s means, turn the spotlight on them on during the actual event for a heartfelt shout out, and be sure to send a thoughtful thank you card within the week following your event.


Search online and use sites like GigMasters to discover vendors for your events. These online tools are a fantastic opportunity for you to introduce your organization to new vendors, and a handful of these leads may turn into great ongoing relationships.

But don't depend entirely on web searches and emails. Get involved networking in your local community, attend other shows and events, and be active in supporting your local entertainers and small businesses. These face-to-face connections will be invaluable in meeting the vendors who will become your next big sponsors.

There are many vendors and event professionals that incorporate a charity mission into their business model, such as Playing By Air Productions’ approach to “Entertainment That Gives Back.” Vendors that incorporate charity into their work throughout the year can offer experience, creative ideas, and innovative sponsorship strategies for highly successful events.


About the Author

Jacob Weiss, PhD, is the director of Playing By Air Productions, an entertainment company that bridges corporate events and social responsibility by donating performances to local causes with each event appearance. Through Creativity Moves, he works with entrepreneurs, charities, and businesses to transform their organizations and brands through new approaches to giving, listening, and community partnerships.