Am I a charity?

I’ve always had a real knee-jerk reaction against accepting anything I see as “charity.” Which is really hard, when you’re in a position where you kind of need it. But what’s the difference between that and patronage?

Patronage is a pretty ancient practice that has allowed artists to survive and do their work for centuries.

Despite the ‘legitimacy’ of it, it still took me a long time to sign up to Patreon and to feel at all comfortable about letting people know they could be part of that if they wanted to.

A few months ago, I had a new patron sign on. They wanted to give me an amount that I considered “too much” for the work I do. “Too much” is pretty hard to quantify. In all honesty – it wasn’t. The posts I put through Patreon are well-researched, well thought-out, well written. If I was getting paid per word by any publication, I’d get far more. I’m getting a little better at backing myself as a professional writer as I go along.

The value of my work aside, I guess one of the reasons I felt this person was offering “too much” was because of the implied power balance. If this person – it’s relevant that he’s a man who is older than me – was giving me this much per post: what did he expect in return?

You may think I’m being pretty cynical, but experience has unfortunately taught me otherwise.

I initiated a discussion with him about it. Well, no, that’s a lie – I basically just messaged him saying “No.”

But a conversation did ensue – an understandably awkward one, when you’re talking money with a stranger. Eventually, he convinced me he was in a position to support my work in this way and I felt mooostly happy about letting that happen. The truth was, I didn’t have a lot of arguing power. I want to be paid for my work. I need to be paid for my work.

Last week I met him for the first time, and the discussion continued. He tried to explain to me how he views patronage as similar to charitable giving. He said he likes to ensure his money goes to the places that need it, whether that be women’s refuge or the SPCA or arts. In supporting my work, he doesn’t see it as giving money to an individual, the same way as when you give money to a charity it’s not going to an individual. It’s going to work.

The argument is compelling but I’m still not sure I’m convinced. To try and explore my thinking  I googled the definition of both charity and patronage.

Charity: the voluntary giving of help, typically in the form of money, to those in need. Financial assistance, aid, welfare, relief, funding.

Patronage: the support given by a patron. Sponsorship, backing, funding, financing, philanthropy, promotion, support, championship, advocacy, guardianship.

The basic idea is the same I guess – funding – but patronage seems more complex. It suggests a more personal relationship between the patron and the individual – which may be an outdated idea with the use of tools like Patreon now – but that is still how I mostly feel about my patrons. I don’t seem them as faceless givers. I see them as people involved with, and believing of, my work.

I think what gets me about feeling like a charity is the idea that people are giving me money for nothing. It does come back to the power dynamic. It puts me in a really vulnerable position, a position of reliance on the “goodheartedness” of others.

I don’t believe my patrons support me out of goodheartedness, though that may certainly be an element of it. I don’t believe they see themselves as alleviating personal poverty. I believe they see value in the work I do, and feel like they get something back from supporting it.

(Then when I read that last line back to myself – well, the same could be said for charitable giving. So maybe I’m just talking myself in circles here).

I guess, no matter what way you view it, the important thing is that the support of my patrons helps make it possible for me to keep writing. That support has meant I can do things like buy a tablet, and voice recognition software, so that I can still work when my disability becomes – well, disabling.

It has a very real effect on my life.