Should we use Volunteers?

As you may know, we have a lot of helpers here in the Cotton On MCR office. The help ranges from guest bloggers, photographers, videographers and help with day-to-day activities too.

We always show gratitude and thank everyone as much as we can – but is it enough? Should we not be asking for help if we can’t afford to pay for it? Should we be asking for help in the first place. Is ‘volunteer’ a dirty word and is it actually just free labour?

We recently had an artist give us a bit of a telling off after putting a shout out on Instagram for a volunteer photographer to help us shoot an exhibition for a review. They said that is was wrong of us to ask for anyone to volunteer, that for a business we should be paying everyone that helps us. They said that ‘…asking creatives to work for free or volunteer their time for free only solidifes the idea that creatives are not worth paying. It’s harmful to us all as creatives, especially when it comes from a creative source such as yourselves.’

As you can imagine, this comment made me pretty upset. I launched Cotton On MCR and work damn hard at it to push and help Manchester creatives any way I can. Our goal is to promote the art and work of Manchester’s best artists and creatives. So to hear that someone suggests we come across in any other light was really upsetting and made me pretty angry.

So this article goes out to all those people that have previously, and are currently helping me run this blog and doing so as a volunteer. The main point to raise is, as soon as we can pay for people’s help, OF COURSE we will. We have been in their shoes, done the volunteering ourselves, and we know it can be shitty.

However, although Cotton On MCR is developing and we try to do as much as we can to grow this business, at the end of the day we aren’t making enough money to pay our helpers. We are still in our first year of trading, working at a loss. This is extremely common for most companies in the first couple of years, to be working at a loss. Any money we do make from sales in the shop, or from events etc, goes back into the company. I don’t take any money out of the blog at all.

I also want to say, and refer back to our aim, is that we do all this to build up and promote Manchester’s art scene and its artists. This is a big task which I have dedicated myself to. Without the help of others, I would have to close the business down – so they’d be no more blog, no more shop, no events, no reviews, no Instagram or Facebook. This means that we would no longer be able to help any artists at all. Cotton On MCR is here to help Manchester’s art community, and without the help of those volunteers, there would be no help for artists from us. I also like to think that those that do help, share the same passions as I do, and want to contribute to the cause. Plus, the more help we get, the quicker Cotton On MCR can grow, and the sooner we will be making money to then give back to those that volunteer.

Some companies need volunteers, it’s not great, it’s not ideal, but it is the truth. What would be wrong is if we were a huge company, making profit, and still asking for volunteers. But that is not the case. The person that raised their concerns with us, about not paying our helpers, may have thought we were a bigger company than we actually are. I remember someone once saying they thought we were a group of ex-students, with a little working office in the centre of Manchester – that is the dream, but at the minute not the case.

One thing we did take away from the points the artist raised, was that if we aren’t in a position to pay, we can offer other things including the advertising space we would normally charge for on the blog. This actually is a really good idea so thank you for that. Those that have recently volunteered for us, we have given them that option. Those of you reading this that have helped in the past, that offer is open to you too! We have also started adding a shout out onto our newsletter, where we again thank those that have helped and added links back to their social media/website. And as standard, we always credit those that help and have a blurb and link about them on the articles.

At the end of the day, I am admitting that it is crappy to ask for volunteer help. That goes across all companies and industries, not just creative ones. But unfortunately some companies wouldn’t be able to do what they do without the help of volunteers. It’s sad, but it is true. I will work bloody hard to continue to grow Cotton On MCR, to find new ways of making money, to develop the business so that hopefully, in the not too distance future, we are a sizeable business that has the funds to pay our contributors. That would make me extremely happy!

I hope those that have helped us in the past don’t feel like I have used them, or made them feel like they are not worthy. I hope they have seen the benefits and understand how much their contribution helps me and helps Cotton On’s cause. It makes the blog so much better, it gives our audience new points of views to read and not just mine, new images to see, new videos to watch… it varies our site and makes it miles better. I can not thank those enough for all that they have done, and I hope they understand that.

This article is a talking point as I am sure there are many of you that may agree or disagree with what I said, and that may agree with the artist that contacted us on Instgram and think we should be doing more. If you have ideas of what and how we can do that, please do let us know! We want nothing more to improve this company so I can continue to grow it. But the only way I can continue to do that, is with the help of you lovely Manchester folk. It is a very tricky subject, it isn’t just black and white, its actually a really muddy grey area of a topic and we are trying our best to be as fair as possible. We would love to hear what you guys think about it.

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  1. Katie

    A very interesting article, as someone that advocates the paying of artists and creatives it’s card to find a line where volunteering yourself and your work for free is acceptable.

    CottonOn is clear how they utilize free labour, and offers out free advertising etc so on some way compensate those who have offered their time.

    I’m sure when you take over the MCR art scene you’ll be happy to pay the creatives you use

    • cottononmcr

      Hi Katie. Thanks for reading our post and leaving a comment. Yes exactly, we are still plugging away and trying to earn more money to then give back to those that work for us. And I hope those that have volunteered with us understand that too. It is a really tricky subject and tricky thing to manage as the business owner.
      I think people see our successes so far and assume we are doing really well and earning lots of money but I’m afraid that just isn’t the case. One day though – fingers crossed.

  2. Luke Mason

    Hi there. I own Kula Gallery in the northern quarter and I too have volunteers working for me. All volunteers that I do take on are also designers/artists/ makers and in exchange for them working one day a week they get space in the shop to showcase and sell their work which I think is a good deal!
    They can work on projects while they are working the shop, they have a platform for selling their work and be customer facing which can get them feedback and it can also really help with giving confidence in what they are doing like it did with myself.

    I think it really depends on the situation and what the volunteer is getting in return. In some cases people just want to fill their spare time to something they see as being a worthy cause.

    I too have had people assume I’ve got lots of money an even been asked if I’m a millionaire because I have my own shop, unfortunately that isn’t the case but I do LOVE what I’m doing.

    • cottononmcr

      Hi Luke. Thanks for your comment. It sounds like we have a lot of similarities! We do try and give back to our volunteers as much as we can, and take on suggestions for other ways to do that! The art industry is an extremely difficult one to get into and crack, and for people like us who are trying to make a living from it, whatever stage of your business you are in, having help makes a massive difference!


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