Business skills for creatives and graphic facilitators

My first freelance facilitation project, twelve years ago, was for a 3-hour offsite meeting. I charged them 3 hours to design and facilitate a 3-hour retreat – but I charged them $25/hr because that was the hourly rate of the office staff. A grand total of $75.

It was a rookie move. I remember some classic thought patterns:

  • My work was in service to an important cause – so how could I undermine their important work by taking money from them?
  • How could I set a value on an intangible skill like facilitation?
  • Why didn’t I ask around what a suitable estimate would be?
  • What if I did take their money, and they judged me for being selfish?

Business Skills for Creatives and Graphic Facilitators

Luckily, I figured out some business skills for creatives over the last decade. Now I’m running a creative agency, drawing and facilitating values-based projects, and paying the bills. Not every creative wants to be self-employed, but if you’d rather tolerate unpredictability over the risk of being bored at a 9 to 5 job, it can be great.

Here are some thoughts after being on the business panel at this year’s International Forum of Visual Practitioners in Montclair, NJ.

Your Work Has Value and Value = Payment

Our creative work has value in amplifying some of the most complex issues of our time. We are providing unique value as a service and creative business, while working on important issues, and it’s OK to be paid for that. I came from the non-profit sector, and I was great at writing grants because it was about the issues. Use that lens to help yourself advocate to get paid, for how you’re uniquely able to help on these issues with your services. Do great work so you’re proud to show that organizations’ members what you did with their dollars.

This one is for the activists and recovering activists: it is OK to give yourself permission to get paid for what you do creatively. That’s the inner work of naming a price and standing in that discomfort, and at the same time, knowing that we need to transform any systems of money that are based in theft. I grew up proudly working class. Find ways to work in the barter economy, gift economy, and the wage economy, so you are able to support your well-being in all the ways that means to you.

Projects that are work from the heart in some way, should also be reciprocal. Maybe you discount for a non-profit, but part of the decision could be whether you can use it online for promotion. Maybe you negotiate that you may present the work in person to the Board of Directors, or to a large community meeting after, because of what networks you want to grow.

Be proud of what you’re doing as a creative person. Tell people what you want to be known for. Show your work – and remember it’s not just the product that you’re known for…it’s your reputation, so be proud of it. Be known for integrity, showing up wholeheartedly, and deeply knowing the topic.

by raquel benmergui: panelists at IFVP

You Have to Show People What You Do

Share your visuals on social media. Share, even if it’s not perfect. Don’t be shy. It doesn’t have to be all about you. Use the 30/30/30 rule. 30 percent: sharing on-brand, interesting, relevant information, amplifying others. 30 percent: what you do, including your work. 30 percent: other or personal (dogs!).

Say yes and then say no. At the beginning, it might feel easier to say yes to everything, which helps you make decisions later about what to say no to. Yes yes yes, then no. Later, it’s no no no, yes.

Only show work that you want more of. At some point you will have to take down an old project that was once a favourite, because you don’t want more projects of that style or type. Clients need to see that you already have the capability to do a project like the one they want – help them see and bridge that gap. Don’t wait for them to ask.

Keep a side project because it will keep things fresh. Sometimes it’s better when work isn’t paid, so then no one can tell you what to do.

 Pay it Forward

Use your (white! Cis! and other) privileges to open doors. It might take months. Start. If you’re working in community, invite people from the communities being served to be the facilitator/ co-facilitator/ graphic recorder/ paid photographer, or to take on key roles. Hire, mentor, create opportunities for youth, BIPOC folks, trans folks, voices of people affected by the issues you’re working on.

Put money where you mean it. Drawing Change has a formal mentoring program, and a paid accelerator program that has $5000 of unrestricted funds for that person.

Pay people in training well. It’s not about a fixed number of months of experience, it’s about the stage they’re at. Their developmental training path won’t follow the same path you took. In some cases, some folks might not have the same number of years on the job graphic recording as you, but they bring a lifetime of lived experience, which means they can connect with the content and clients effectively.

A business, or building a creative practice where people pay you, is ultimately relationships. Reach out, connect, participate online and in real life about the topics you want to work on. You are planting seeds, that might take months or years to bear fruit, but that’s what matters.

Giving back can be about creative finances, but you don’t have to say yes. For projects I call “work from the heart”, you could donate a portion of sales to good causes, or have a sliding scale, or have a certain number of projects you do for discount during the years – but you will still have to put a limit on it in order to be sustainable. Otherwise the resentment will creep into your creativity when you realize you’re working for $2/hr.

Find Your Champions

There’s not one way to structure your creative business. That’s the joy of building a creative practice. Maybe you stay a solo practitioner with a specialty. Maybe you start a workers co-op or are part of an artistic collective. Perhaps you’ll have a large distributed network. Don’t compare – experiment.

Don’t work alone. Join an independent artists union or a freelance union. Join networks that offer health benefits. Join professional bodies. Join up with folks that are living and working near you. Join a Zoom call. Join so you can show up and build a community of practice that continues to give back, get paid, and pushes what’s possible creatively.

You have a gift: don’t wait, create.


Our next graphic facilitation workshop is October 5-6, 2019. Create visuals for a better world: Early bird sign up now until September 1, 2019