Should Freelancers Ever Work for Free?8 min read
Freelancers are no strangers to working for free. Writing on spec, creating mockup portfolio samples, doing trial tests to “audition” for jobs, not to mention anytime a job listing boasts the opportunity for exposure and “plenty of coffee!”.
On first impression, it sounds exploitative, although if you ask anyone who’s been at this for a while, they’ll probably say they’ve done unpaid labor at least once for one reason or another. So, when, if ever should you say yes to unpaid work? When should you respectfully decline?
Even for seasoned pros, it all depends on context. But before I break down the iffy grey areas, let’s get the major no-no’s out of the way.
When to say ‘no’
Scenario #1: When the client can clearly pay you, but just doesn’t want to.
Generally speaking, people want to keep their money. In the working world, that translates to companies being stingy even when they have the resources to pay up, a phenomenon that technically makes sense, but is still unappreciated when you have bills to pay.
Before entering a partnership (and locking in an agreement), browse the company on sites like Glassdoor on Angel.co to get a sense for how they compensate specific roles. Read their careers and culture page to see what perks they brag about (free beer on tap = they probably have cash), and if you’re really thorough, scope out their financial reports and look into their funding round history. From all that intel, you’ll be able to tell whether or not they’re just trying to take advantage of you.
Scenario #2: When they promise you the world … eventually.
All companies have to start somewhere, but some are bound to crash and burn harder than others. If a company says they can’t pay upfront, but will most definitely be profitable in the future and will of course pay you all the money when that day comes, be on alert. It’s one thing to join forces with a company or organization whose mission and product you believe in and help them because you genuinely care about their success. It’s another to be wooed by the prospect of extreme wealth when your gut tells you to run the other way because nothing about the founder’s plan makes sense.
This all ties back to the importance of having a contract in place prior to beginning work with a new client. Draw clear lines in the sand in terms of payment amount, delivery method and window before investing any of your precious time in the project. This is one of the easiest and most overlooked ways for freelancers to protect themselves.
Scenario #3: When you can’t afford to work for free.
This one’s pretty obvious, but if you need money immediately, don’t work for free. Unfortunately, that might mean having to pass on opportunities that require you to turn in something on spec in favor of another gig or job that can guarantee a least a bit of cash. Or, it might mean working overtime so you can accomplish both.
Working for equity on an exciting new venture or taking on pro-bono projects are opportunities that freelancers can and should explore as they round out their clientele with partners who motivate and inspire them. That said, to be a freelancer is to be the CEO and COO and CFO of your business, among other things. If you view your career as a business, money in and money out, it should be clear if non-monetary opportunities can fit within your mix, or if you need to emphasize revenue to keep the lights on.
To be a #freelancer is to be the #CEO and #COO and #CFO of your business. Click To Tweet
When to consider working for free
While money is the end goal for most of us, there are instances when working for free can be worth your while. When vetting non-monetary opportunities, consider the value of the partnership beyond the bottom line. Are you gaining an interesting, perhaps portfolio-enhancing experience? Are you tapping into a new network that could provide fruitful for new business? Are you volunteering your time for a cause you care about. These are all factors to consider.
When vetting non-monetary opportunities, consider the value of the partnership beyond the bottom line. Click To Tweet
Scenario #1: When you want to pad your portfolio.
In creative fields, opportunity breeds more opportunity, and getting that first gig can be a pain, especially if you don’t have any previous work to demonstrate your skillset. Telling someone that you know how to do something isn’t quite as effective as showing them, so building up your portfolio with high quality, innovative work will ultimately work in your favor.
While you can create examples without a real client—write press releases for imaginary products, design logos for nonexistent companies, host a headshot photoshoot with friends and family—having past clients who can vouch for you makes hiring you less of a gamble and builds up your credibility. Our advice: Consider non-paid work if and only if you believe that it could win you more work down the line. In that case, the time investment will have a tangible return that you’ll be able to justify. If it’s run of the mill spec work, kindly pass and move on.
Scenario #2: When you’re still learning.
If you’re an amaetur or total beginner, you’ll need to get in more practice before you can start charging clients in good faith. “I wrote for free for a while so that I could learn how to write, how to interview and quote sources, and how to work with editors,” says writer Olga Mecking, whose work has appeared in the Washington Post, New York Post, New York Magazine, among other notable publications. “I’d rather be paid for my work, but I can tell you that my writing at that time was not in any way ready to be published for money.”
The same goes for anything else that requires a well-honed skillset. Kind of knowing how to code is not the same as being able to bust out a new app that’s glitch free without first reading through pages of tutorials and watching YouTube video after YouTube video. If you’re considering switching careers and want to get your feet wet, our advice is to take on some smaller, more manageable projects so you can gain experience without sacrificing too much of your time.
Scenario #3: When it’s the only way to get in.
Again. Ugh. But if a client doesn’t know you, sometimes they require that you work on spec—AKA do some of the work first and then see if they’re into it enough to use it and pay you—before they’ll commission you in advance. While understandable, this practice definitely does not work in favor of the freelancer.
If you’re in a scenario like this, your best bet is to work with the hiring manager to reach a fair compromise. Explain to him or her that you understand their reluctance to hire without a sample, but clearly communicate the importance of managing your initial time investment. Providing the hiring manager with hard numbers around hours and effort will help them come to a more reasonable ask. Instead of a full write-up, perhaps it’s a succinct outline. Rather than an entire ad campaign, perhaps it’s a mood board and a single logo treatment.
If they won’t budge, as a last resort consider if the spec work could potentially be sold elsewhere should the deal fall through. This is especially true for freelance writers, who are often expected to produce an entire piece of content before selling it to a publication. “I would write on spec for a prestigious organization with the understanding that they may not buy it, they also might,” says writer Shana Westlake. “My feeling is that any idea that [they] want to see could almost certainly be sold elsewhere.”
Scenario #4: When it’s for a worthy cause that you believe in.
There are some companies and organizations that legitimately don’t have the budget to pay anyone who isn’t on their core team. This is the case with many nonprofits and indie ventures. If you have the luxury of being able to donate your time and your talent to help a group of people (or a single person) out and you believe in what they’re doing, then by all means, contribute in anyway you can.
Volunteering your talents is one of the biggest perks of being an independent worker, as it allows you to apply your skills to the causes you care about most. Just be sure to carefully track how many hours you intend to “donate” and confirm you can afford whatever you give.
Of course, these aren’t hard and fast rules, and they may not jive with your way of life. The important thing is to know how much you’re worth and then choose your projects with a savvy business mindset. Never undersell yourself, but if you think that an unpaid opportunity could lead to something bigger and better, weigh the pros and cons before deciding whether or not to dismiss it.
Volunteering your talents is one of the biggest perks of being an #independentworker. Click To Tweet