Should You Take That Pro Bono Catering Gig?

It’s that time of year again! Not talking about the holidays—talking about fund raising time! The holidays are when a lot of great causes try to take advantage of everyone’s charitable holiday mood to raise funds and awareness for their causes. Which also means you may be asked to cater one or more of these events for free or at cost. And then the question becomes: Should you take that pro bono catering gig?

Ask yourself these 5 questions to determine if you should take that pro bono catering gig.

1. Is it a cause you believe in?

You will be donating your time, energy, and resources to this cause. That’s as good as—if not better than—cash. If you don’t believe in the cause, you definitely should not take the event—no matter what you think the exposure will be. Chances are good that if this is a cause you don’t like, the audience will not be a good fit for you. If it’s a cause you’re at least neutral about, then maybe it’s worth it. But really, an ideal situation would be to align yourself with a cause in the community that you really want to support and feel strongly about.

2. Is the exposure right for you?

Exposure is possibly one of the worst reasons to take a pro bono gig, unless the event meets other specific criteria too. Everyone says, “You’ll get great exposure!” And yes, in the most technical definition, you will get exposure to new people. But will this exposure lead to booking more events? Not necessarily. There are two kinds of exposure: general and specific. General exposure is just that—you serving food to a bunch of people who may or may not have any interest in you as a caterer beyond you’re serving them right now. You don’t know if they’re a good fit for you. These people are not decision makers who will book you for any events they may be involved with in the future. Or worse, they’ll only think of you when they need to book their own pro bono events.

But with specific exposure, you could be in a room with people who are decision makers. People who have events and are always looking for people to help produce them. People who will tell their friends about you. Venue owners, hospitality managers, executive admins who plan corporate events. These are people who will pay attention to you, really taste your food, ask you questions, and may want to work with you in the future. Then, the event may be worth taking.

3. What’s in it for you?

Think about what you’ll really get out of it—and don’t be afraid to ask. If all they can offer is exposure, ask who will be there? Besides influential decision makers from other organizations and companies, what about other caterers and event planners? Will you be working by yourself or with a team? Working within a team of caterers is often a great opportunity, because you can meet people who might call you if they need back up for really big events—and vice versa. Then the pro bono gig becomes a great professional networking opportunity—a chance to show what you’re made of and to forge some new relationships for future collaboration.

4. Will you enjoy it?

Will this event be fun for you in other ways? Is it a chance to cater in a venue you’ve always dreamed about working in or to meet your favorite band? What are some of the other perks? Because as you already know, there are advantages to being in the service industry, and one of them is basically getting that all-access backstage pass to the hottest ticket in town. Being “in the know’ and being one of the people who “makes the magic happen” behind the scenes is always a good feeling. And sometimes, that’s enough.

5. If a paying event comes along, would you still take the pro bono one?

What makes pro bono work during the holiday season so difficult is that you usually already have too much work already. EVERYONE is having a party—so you don’t need to take pro bono work for the exposure. Pro bono work is much easier to justify during the slow season after New Year’s, when you’re not likely to book as much anyway. It can’t hurt to get out there and spend some time networking with folks and maybe give your staff a few hours. But during the busy seasons, if another paying gig comes along, will you want to drop the pro bono one?

The answer is: If you would be tempted to drop the pro bono event if a paying event comes along, the event probably isn’t that valuable to you. So, if it’s not that valuable to you—why are you taking it, especially during the busy season, when something else is likely to come along? Never EVER cancel on an event, free or otherwise. Word will get out and people won’t trust you. So if you will regret committing yourself to this event, then don’t take it.

The overarching point here is that your time and talents are valuable. Do not undervalue them—and don’t let others undervalue them. Whether the event is a large, public charity event or a friend asking you to cater a small dinner party from her kitchen, don’t be afraid to dig and find out what you will truly get out of the event. Then, you can make an informed decision about donating your time and effort for any event.