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A Mighty Conundrum: A Controversy Over Writing For Free

Should you do writing for free? The website A Mighty Girl has raised this issue once again. I interview the players and explore the issue in depth.

Should you do writing for free? The website A Mighty Girl has raised this issue once again.

When I started blogging a decade ago, I didn’t consider myself a professional writer, although writing had been a big part of my work in marketing and public relations. But after three years of blogging, I made the leap into being a full-time freelance writer. There have been many hard lessons learned and bumps in the road (hello, economic downturn), but this is now what I do full-time, and quite successfully.

I’ve spoken many times to others about how to start freelance writing, and a question that comes up over and over again in the era of Huffington Post, “Should I write for free to gain exposure?”

This is such a difficult question to answer. First, let me be very clear about something: I am not speaking about writing on your own personal blog. I am speaking specifically about researching, writing, editing, and presenting finished content to be hosted outside of your own site.

The answer is, well, maybe but probably not. Sadly, there isn’t that much value in “exposure,” and many of the sites promising exposure can actually cause you professional harm later on when people consider hiring you, because those sites are viewed as unethical (Huff-Po does not fall into that category, however). Personally, I only offer free content to non-profit organizations (and, very rarely, to good friends) because I’ve never been able use exposure to buy groceries.

Now I’ve revealed my clear personal bias on this particular issue, so I’ll state it for the record plainly: I think writers should get paid for writing if they are writing for a for-profit enterprise.

This question has been raised once again because the website A Mighty Girl dedicated to empowering girls through education and books, a mission I applaud posted a blog post and Facebook update seeking “Social Media Volunteer Writers.” This drew the ire of Kelby Carr of Type-A Parent (full disclosure: Kelby and I are friends), who said on Facebook:

“So a site with a name like A Mighty Girl is asking people to work for free. Um, wow. Be sure to go over there and comment if you have any thoughts on this. I think if we want to raise mighty girls, we should start with the example of respecting women and men and not asking them to work for free. But maybe I am zany.”

This led to a lengthy discussion on the thread on A Mighty Girl’s Facebook page (that has since been deleted) and many bloggers and writers criticized the company for the job listing. Others felt the critics were bullying a small woman-owned business and felt the discussion was inappropriate. Carolyn Danckaert, a co-founder of the site, spoke quite eloquently on the thread about being the owner of a small business and said while the site is successful it isn’t really yet profitable and only has a staff of one (and her husband, part-time) hence the need for volunteers. I’ll mention at this point that A Mighty Girl is not a non-profit organization, but the founders consider it a social good enterprise.

Jessica Gottlieb wrote a thoughtful article called “The Problem Is That Your Hobby Is My Job” and I feel like she brought up many excellent points, and I found this quote particularly interesting.

“When I explained to Carolyn today on the telephone that the kind of content creation she was looking for in the form of well written actionable Facebook posts was actually quite skilled and something that many of us charge good money for she was surprised. When I gave her typical rates I heard her gasp. One woman’s hobby is another woman’s career.”

Ms. Danckaert emphasized to Ms. Carr in the thread before it was removed that the job was for “just” five Facebook posts a day, not articles. However, a quick survey of the (quite excellent) Facebook updates on A Mighty Girl’s page shows they often run over 600 words which is undeniably article length. So volunteering to write five Facebook posts of that length a week is committing to at least 15 or 20 hours of work a week for someone like me, an experienced writer who writes content full time. That is quite a, well, job and I think writing for free is rarely a good idea for the writer.

I spoke on the telephone with Ms. Danckaert this morning to get her perspective on this issue, and to explain to her my objections to her choices. I wanted her to be clear about my personal biases on this issue, and that this piece I am writing here is editorial and will include my opinions. Just like Ms. Gottlieb, I found Ms. Danckaert extremely likable and personable and absolutely committed to her site’s mission.

A concern has been raised by many about volunteering for a for-profit enterprise. Ms. Danckaert claimed in the Facebook thread, “It’s perfectly legal for small social enterprises or companies to have volunteers,” and when I asked her about it she told me that she’d consulted a lawyer who verified this fact. This is technically accurate. While Fair Labor Standards Act states that “Under the FLSA, employees may not volunteer services to for-profit private sector employers,” the FLSA only applies to companies with over $500,000 in revenue a year. So it’s not illegal, but that doesn’t mean it’s ethical.

And I don’t think this is her first unethical business decision. The very first thing she did in launching her company is step all over someone else’s brand Maggie Mason of the 14-year-old site and business, Mighty Girl (again, full disclosure: Maggie Mason is a friend). Ms. Mason has really struggled with this issue professionally; after all, A Mighty Girl uses a red-headed girl in their logo, and Ms. Mason is well known for her big wild  red hair so everyone assumed it was a new venture for Ms. Mason when A Mighty Girl first launched.

I asked Maggie about this, and she said, “It was and continues to be upsetting, and seemingly contrary to the nature of their stated mission. ‘Hooray for independent girls growing up to be strong women, except screw this particular one who spent 14 years building her brand in the space we’d like to occupy.’ Why not just choose another name rather than stomp a member of the very community you’d like to join?” She reached out to Ms. Danckaert when the site launched but received no response. “So what am I supposed to do, sue the “hooray for strong girls” people?” Ms. Mason told me. “I am solidly pro strong girls, and I have no desire to enter a soul-sucking legal battle. I just want to keep writing where I was writing for over a decade before they built a referral-links squat in my front yard.”

When I asked Ms. Danckaert about Maggie Mason and her site Mighty Girl, she told me “I was unaware of the harm it’s caused Maggie.” But she remains unrepentant. “There are a lot of businesses with similar names. We were familiar with her, but felt that we were focused on a different mission and it wouldn’t be a conflict. Our content is all really branded to kids.” When I pressed her that, in fact, a woman talking about parenting and products related to parenting is actually not that dissimilar, Ms. Danckaert stated, “We did a big examination of names in the community, and she seemed well established, and a small site that focused on girls and books would in no way be confusing in this community. We’ve never been confused as being associated with Maggie. I think it’s very clear to most people that we’re very different.”

Personally, I feel that co-opting the name of another woman’s company and then asking writers (that are mostly women) to contribute to your business for free is the opposite of empowering of girls and women, and I asked Ms. Danckaert for her response to that. “If you spoke to our volunteers who have helped us in the past, universally they’ve had a really great experience,” she stated. She emphasized that these are not professional writers, saying “It’s been a confidence-building thing for them. They are writing about what they want to write. We feel that writing for us can be a very empowering thing.”

In fact, Ms. Danckaert feels that those of us that object are actually the ones who aren’t empowering women. “If they have time and want to support what we’re doing, it’s totally valid to let them volunteer.” She stated. “I feel like it’s trying to shame us and those that are interested in volunteering, and I don’t think those that have helped us feel they are being exploited.”

I hung up the phone with Ms. Danckaert telling her that she and I were going to have to agree to disagree. While I applaud her mission and think it would be an excellent non-profit organization I think if she’s running a business she needs to employ ethical business practices. When I asked her about that, she stated, “We consider ourselves a social enterprise, and profit is not our primary goal. I guess I don’t think the good a company can do is limited by its tax status.” I completely agree. But I don’t believe using another woman’s business name and opting not to pay employees is doing good.

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