By August 9, 2013 2 Comments Read More →

Political teams may need to replace volunteers with paid contributors

There’s a spectacle playing out on Ottawa Centre MP Paul Dewar’s Facebook Fan Page, and it’s challenging the notion of volunteerism, particularly as it applies to democratic engagement.

For as long as I can remember, political hopefuls from all ideologies (Rhinoceros, Green, NDP, Liberal, Conservative, Reform, and the list goes on) have invited and accepted volunteers to help on election campaigns. Many, again from all ideologies, have pet issues for which they invite and accept volunteer support. Many community groups and charities do the same. They look for a broad spectrum of skills including telephone, writing, fundraising, marketing, design, and the list goes on, to help achieve specific goals.

Few people get public credit for their volunteer contributions on these campaigns, and few (if anyone) have ever questioned this dynamic.

Despite this history, Paul Dewar apparently touched a nerve on his Facebook Fan Page this week when he posted an invitation for anyone “feeling creative” to submit logo and tagline ideas for a pet issue (Note, Dewar posted an open invitation, not one specifically for professional artists or designers).

According to the invitation, the submissions are to be reviewed and the winning design will be owned by Dewar’s office and used with attribution. It’s a voluntary contest, so submissions are likely to be made by people interested in contributing their efforts to this this issue. People who feel this is an attempt at taking advantage of someone’s talent and exploiting intellectual property rights are likely to take a pass

While some people have been supportive of Dewar, others have been quite critical. Jacob Dances Earl included the following in one of his replies to Dewar’s post:

You are asking for a design/brand that you are going to use publicly, and your office will retain intellectual property, but you are not going to pay for it(?) The winning participant will receive credit for their ideas?! Come on, seriously? Accreditation is not a prize; you cannot award what is already deserved by right. [5 likes at the time of this post]

Bonnie-jean Stacey added:

There is some sort of professional standard which frowns upon real designnets doing this sort of free work. They should be paid! [4 likes at the time of this post]

JQ Jamie Q noted:

Proper credit isn’t a prize. It’s what all artists and designers are rightfully entitled to for their work. [5 likes at the time of this post]

So, what is the threshold for democratic engagement? Where do we draw the line on what MPs are entitled to ask for? At what point should volunteers become paid contributors?

Perhaps things might go more smoothly if politicians changed the language to something more familiar to the professional world.

Which reminds me, the Vancouver Ice Caps, a for-profit professional soccer team, is looking for THREE FULL-TIME, UNPAID INTERNS to fill vacancies in marketing, product marketing and graphic design.


About the Author:

Mark Blevis is a digital public affairs strategist and President of, an integrated digital communications, public affairs and research company. His work focuses on the role of digital tools and culture on issues and reputation management. He also leads research into how Canadian opinions are shaped through online content and interactions.
  • Brendan Mulvihill

    This is a really interesting case study. It touches on legal, political and digital democratic issues.

    I think Dewar’s Team enters a grey area by asking for volunteer labour but posting very specific work requirements and specifically the transfer of ownership of the IP. Even if the work is not done by a professional designer, what if it is done by someone affiliated with a GR firm, particular industry, or union who has a talent for design? The threshold for engagement is higher for political participants than charities because of the potential conflicts involved. Political teams should review the Code of Conflict and the Elections Act anytime the seek work that is provided professionally.

    An open design contest is an excellent engagement tool for MPs and a number run contests for submissions for an annual calendar. Jim Hillyer has a good example here

    But the real problem is this is not democratic engagement, it is poorly executed political engagement. It is transparent and limiting which is the opposite goal.

    It is transparent that this is just seeking free work for an underfunded office, but the last line betrays the lack of genuine engagement:
    “- We thank everyone who participates, but we may not be able to contact all entrants individually”

    Here is what “he” should have written:
    “- I thank everyone who participates. I may not be able to personally call and thank all entrants individually, but will be in touch soon.”

    You have to PLAN to take the time to engage personally with people who take the time to help your cause. That’s how you keep the people!!

    This also limits the extent of engagement. How many of his FB followers are designers? Why not make a call for help in gathering some kind of database of online local news stories from affected countries related to the issue. Get local supporters in a multilingual urban riding to translate the stories for english/french readers.

    The democratic engagement starts after you hire a designer and pay for the work to put together a political engagement campaign. Then you can reach beyond your supporters with effective marketing materials and educated people to your cause (and grow your voter/donor base!).

  • Jeff Blackman

    Meanwhile, outside the echo chamber, not a word heard….