Nine-Figure “Charity” Shakes Down Poor Cartoonists for “Pro Bono” Spec Work

Yesterday I received a query from the American Cancer Society for a “pro bono cartoonist.”

Please note, the American Cancer Society is a spectacularly wealthy institution with net assets of $1.3 billion. They pay their retired officers over a million dollars a year.

If we don’t shame these shameless people—people like Arianna Huffington who can EASILY afford to pay cartoonists and other freelancers but simply don’t feel like it—the “information is free” phenomenon is only going to get worse, and more creative types will be driven out of business.


Here’s the original query that I received:

My name is Ivy Wang. I work with the American Cancer Society in Manhattan.I am contacting you because the American Cancer Society is looking for a pro bono cartoonist to help us create QuitBuddy personas.

Here is a brief introduction of the QuitBuddy idea:

As a part of the Great American Smokeout campaign, the American Cancer Society is looking for a pro bono cartoonist to create approximately three or more different QuitBuddy personas that individuals can choose from to act as their inspiration to quit smoking. Examples of potential QuitBuddy personas include Drill Sergeant, Cheerleader, Superhero, Guilty Mom, etc. The personas will be presented as cartoons or through a short comedian video. Caricatures of each persona will also be displayed on a Facebook home page as a postcard that can be tagged or shared or as a funny video from comedians.

We need the work done by November 1 if possible. However, we would still take cartoons later but it might not get promoted this year.

Please let me know if you are interested.

We really appreciate your time and look forward to hearing from you


Here is my reply, modeled on replies to similar queries by other rich, cheap organizations written by Matt Bors and Mikhaela Reid:

Dear Ivy:

Thank you for thinking of me and my work. I do appreciate it.

Please don’t take this the wrong way—I assume you were simply asked to find a cartoonist or cartoonists—but you should be aware that asking for pro bono work from a cartoonist during the current economic environment for cartoonists is pushing a very big red button and might result in negative publicity for the American Cancer Society.

Since I greatly respect the Society’s work, especially its long-standing campaign to fight smoking, which has saved millions of lives, as a former President of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists I think I should let you know that there is a widespread feeling within the profession that organizations like yours can and should pay for cartoons by professional cartoonists.

These days, more and more non-profits and for-profit organizations alike are asking for “free” work by cartoonists. In an environment when scores of cartoonists are being forced to quit and being laid off due to lack of work, groups that pay for everything else ought to be willing to pay the relatively low fees charged by cartoonists.

Does the Society pay any of its staff? Does it rent office space? Does it buy office supplies? If the answer to any of these questions is “yes,” please consider paying cartoonists and other creators. Cartooning is hard work, and it deserves recompense.

According to information I found online, your budget is $350 million per annum. Surely an appropriate fee ($10,000, or 0.003% of your budget) is affordable for a company that spends $914,906 per year on its CEO.

A wildly successful cartoonist earns less than $25,000 per year.

I hope you take this in the friendly spirit in which is meant! And if you’re willing to reconsider your budget, please let me know.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Very truly yours,

Needless to say, I have not heard back.


  • 1. Mendicants have their palms out (in your direction for a free cartoon, in my direction for money) all the F*£)@ time. That’s their job, just as your job is cartooning and editorialising.
    2. People trying to break into publishing must first get published to build a portfolio. They will gladly work for free (but usually for student newspapers and magazines–most expect to get paid after graduation). So why shouldn’t mendicants take advantage? (Answer: because the pros are better 99% of the time, but if everyone went that way, the 1% of new, young content creators who are also talented would never be able to break into the industry.) And, having gotten your name as a cartoonist who is trying to sell his cartoons (not knowing that you’ve had some success in the past) you’re worth a shot. Shots, after all, cost the mendicant very little.

  • Your response was very professional. More professional than I would have been.

    • Thank you. I stand on the heads of giants, specifically Matt Bors and Mikhaela Reid, who have written similar “fuck off” letters in the past.

  • Apparently it’s not only the #OWSers who ” just want something for nothing,” as implied by one Jeff Yeargain (a coupe posts down.)

  • […] Nine-Figure “Charity” Shakes Down Poor Cartoonists for “Pro Bono” Spec Work ← “Welcome to Cancerland” by Barbara Ehrenreich […]

  • Ok, I’m all for your haranguing about people who want you and your cartoonist buddies to give them stuff for free. It’s their right to ask, and it’s your right to tell them to take a hike.

    But please, please, please, stop with the nagging about the “information is free” phenomenon (BTW, it’s actually “information wants to be free”), which you obviously don’t understand and don’t seem interested to understand.

  • John From Censornati
    October 19, 2011 8:42 AM

    If I were you, I would draw them a pro bono QuitBuddy character that they couldn’t refuse. I’d at least try to make them understand that you get what you pay for. I would charge for a “cartoon or short comedian video”.

    Nobody has to blog for Huffington Post and it’s not as if they do it for nothing. There must be something in it for them or they wouldn’t do it. Most of them seem to be selling books and they get to advertise them in their blogs.

    • You’re right. No one is forced to give content to ACS or HuffPo. But there is an ethical concern for an organization sitting on top of $1.3 billion. Do they want to contribute to the death of American editorial cartooning, or do they want to do the right thing and pay for goods and services?

  • […] Ted Rall, when the American Cancer Society asked cartoonists to create three characters for a […]

  • alex_the_tired
    October 19, 2011 12:54 PM

    Question: For artists, the notion of “You need this to build your portfolio, so do it for free.” Isn’t it false from the beginning? If you design an ad, and send the pdf, does it matter if the ad is for a real product? If you’re coming up with an ad for Widget Cola, it still shows your abilities as an illustrator, right?

  • This is exactly why I don’t give money to the cancer society. When they ask me for money I usually point out that I am funded by grants that either come directly from them or related like minded societies or agencies. Thus by giving money to them I am only recycling it back to myself MINUS whatever pasty white over-paid bureaucrats skim off of it and minus whatever is spent on messages (direct or indirect) that I often don’t agree with like “cartoonist slavery is totally cool”. Thus I do more for cancer research by keeping the money in my own pocket and occasionally using some of my own salary to by lab supplies or equipment, which I actually do a few times a year for various reasons (mostly because some grant money is so restrictive and specific on what various portions of it can be spent upon that a simple miscalculation years in advance when the grant was written can deny one some vital supplies later on if not supplemented with freely expendable slush money, like my own sallary.)

    Needless to say this logic is not usually met with approval by the white collar beggars in question.

  • […] a related note, the request for spec work is growing. Ted Rall noted that he was recently solicited by the American Cancer Society to create “three or more different QuitBuddy personas that individuals can choose from to act […]

  • […] Rall points out a recent solicitation he received for unpaid illustration work from the American Caner Society, an organization with a […]