On any given day, I can have a different opinion on whether it is ever OK to work for free – as it’s a complex, nuanced subject. I know that sentence doesn’t help you in the slightest – but hear me out. I promise I’ll offer some actually useful tips if you keep reading. Whether you’re starting a side hustle or a full-time freelancer, the expectation of working for free is something that you need to be prepared for.
This blog post is based on the Out of Office podcast episode: Is it ever OK to work for free?
How many freelancers work for free?
Half of all freelancers have been asked to work for free. Forty-three percent of all freelancers have completed a job without pay. And, there’s an ongoing joke in the freelance world that you can’t pay your bills with ‘exposure’. Gloomy stuff, right?
But: is it ever OK to work for free? And what value can working for free give you that will actually improve your business, aside from its financials? Call this blog post your guide to answering the ever-unanswerable question.
In my book Out of Office, the no-nonsense guide for those contemplating freelance life and those already on the freelancing journey, I interviewed Digital Marketing Coach, Alice Benham. I knew she had some interesting thoughts on working for free and she gave me these nuggets of wisdom:
“Putting a monetary value on your work can have a direct impact on the quality of the work’s outcome. Any clients that have paid full price for my services have a better attitude. All my ‘bad clients’ have been ones that have got my services at a discounted rate, or for free.
“I think it says a lot about someone’s attitude when they’re willing to pay for a service. I have such a better relationship with every single one of my paid clients, because I know they are paying a price that’s genuinely fair for what my time is worth – and they know the value they’re getting.”
Choosing to work for free is a privilege
I have also experienced the horrors that can come with deciding to work for free; sometimes a client expects you to even get out of pocket to achieve the end result. So, rule number one when it comes to deciding whether you should indeed work for nada is to make sure you’re getting something out of it – even if it’s not money.
When choosing to work for free, it’s both a personal choice and a privilege. There’s no one answer because it depends on your mission and your current financial situation. In the early days, I did sometimes work for free, because I had a stable income in another job so I knew I could work for nothing and still pay the bills at the end of the month.
You just run the risk of a client perpetuating the idea that freelancers are less ‘valuable’ than employees – which is completely untrue. Even now, long into my freelance career, I still get asked to work for free. There’s a brash, no f***s given approach some employers have – that ‘expectation’ to sometimes work for free never goes away in the freelance industry, unfortunately.
But, sometimes, you can play the game to your own advantage.
So, is there ever any value in working for free?
- Consider saying yes: if there’s a clear benefit you’ll receive that isn’t financial. For example, you might be asked to speak on a panel for free, as I have often done, and the audience you’ll reach may be much bigger than your own, and you’ll have the chance to speak about something that’s close to your heart. When I was promoting my book, Out of Office, my marketing strategy included reaching communities of side hustlers, business owners and freelancers at events for free because I knew that by sharing my knowledge with them, I had a chance to capture their attention, and, in turn, get them to buy my book. I was working for free, but I was making valuable connections and getting something out of it in the long-term.
- Consider saying yes: if you’re raising your profile by working for free. Value doesn’t exist just in monetary form – oh no. If you’re appearing as a guest on a monetised podcast, you’re working for free. But the ‘exposure’ (the dreaded word) could actually be valuable for you in this instance.
- Consider saying yes: if you’re building valuable networking connections. For example, if you’re a photographer, you could offer a free shoot to an activist whose mission you admire, or you could reach out to a digital marketer and for a shoot, you, in turn, get to build your portfolio and secure some banging marketing tips. If you offer people work for free, you never know: they might just turn into paying clients.
- Consider saying yes: if you want to build experience in something you’re not an expert in, yet. Reach out to people – offer your services for free – build up that portfolio that then attracts paying clients. You’ll see the results pay off.
- Consider saying yes: if it helps you build your confidence. I did this with public speaking. I wanted to be a better public speaker, and I wanted to learn in a pressure-off way. By taking free gigs, I didn’t feel that pressure to perform perfectly, because I was doing a client a favour. In turn, my confidence was built up from those free gigs, and then I started getting booked for paid work.
When to say no to working for free
- Consider saying no: if it’s a BIG project, with multiple people working on it, that are all getting paid. Question why the company can afford to pay them, and not you, and get answers from the employer. If it’s down to differing levels of experience, and you’re not quite experienced enough, work out how much the opportunity is worth it for you before saying yes.
- Consider saying no: if you already have a busy work schedule. If free work is pushing you into burnout territory, that’s not the time to be picking more up.
- Consider saying no: if the opportunity gives you NO benefit. If you feel the company is taking advantage – perhaps they’re making you write for free, but they then won’t link to your website in exchange – question why you’re doing this. If you’re not wanting to be affiliated with their brand, necessarily, don’t bother picking up the opportunity.
- Consider saying no: if the client looks like they definitely have the budget to be paying you, but just aren’t coughing up. If there’s no money being offered, you have nothing to lose, so always ask if there’s a budget available. Often, it’s awful, but companies will let free work go ahead if you don’t ask for your worth. If you ask, they might magically have a budget available. Surprise, surprise.
- Consider saying no: if they’re not clear on exactly what the work is that you’ll deliver. Always ensure your contract sets out your terms, and be clear that if you’re writing one blog post for free, that’s all you’re doing for free. If they then ask you for more rounds of amends than you agreed to, or they’re trying to get you to work on the SEO for their website, be clear that that will incur a fee.
So, there you have it.
Yes, it’s a personal decision. Yes, a lot of it is based on privilege.
But it’s always important to stick to your gut and know your worth. Hopefully, this blog post has helped with that a little – and remember, if you get an offer to work for free, you don’t have to say yes straight away. Sit with it, work out what’s in it for you, and don’t be scared to challenge your potential client on their proposition. You’ve got this.
If you want to know more about setting your rates, handling awkward freelance conversations, and living your best out of office life get a copy of my book Out of Office now.