Freelancers: Should You Work For Free?
Updated: Aug 22
Although I just recently started pursuing my freelance photography career more seriously in the last few months, as I prepared to come back to school at RED Academy, the whole idea of working for free has been something that I’ve been struggling with for a while now.
As creatives, we are often approached by people who want us to work for free.
They often offer some intangible benefit in return, like portfolio building or exposure, but do these potential perks actually outweigh the negative aspects of not getting paid for our hard work and time?
Some people will argue that you can’t quantify or cash exposure, or that doing free work devalues your time and abilities, which quite frankly, can be true. However, I’ve come to realize that there is a time and place for doing free work.
So, long story short, yes, but only when it makes sense for you strategically.
For example, when you are first starting out, it makes sense to do free work. Without portfolio work, it is very difficult to get paid work. The demand for your service is non-existent or extremely low but the supply is high (meaning that there’s lots of work you’d really like to do). Therefore, your prices have to be very low, or even free.
Here are some instances in which working for free might make sense for your brand/business:
1. You will gain real-life experience.
Gaining experience can help you land a job. Whether it means speaking to audiences to gain paid speaking engagements down to road or taking pictures to build a portfolio for your photography business, working for free might be a productive step.
However, it is important to set a time limit on how long or how much work you will do for free. If you are still working for free after two and a half years, you have yourself a hobby – not a business.
So, ask yourself “What do I hope to gain from this experience?” And have a clear goal in mind whenever you agree to volunteer your time and efforts.
It is also important to make sure that you do not come across as desperate. Randomly contacting strangers to offer your service may backfire. Organizations may not take you seriously if you are not putting a price tag on your work.
2. You will gain an impressive addition to your résumé.
Some types of volunteer work can boost your résumé. If you are a new blogger, you might decide that it is worth your time to submit free content to high profile sites. For example, being able to say that you have written for the Huffington Post, sounds way better than saying that you have only ever published content to your own blog.
So, if an organization invites you to work for free, think about whether your time and efforts could possibly help you to build a future career. If it is a well-known individual or company, there is a chance that you might gain credibility that could help you land more fruitful jobs down the road.
3. You will gain legitimate exposure.
Whether it is an organization looking for a webinar for its employees or a blogger looking for free content, the word exposure gets used liberally. However, not all exposure is created equally.
If your friend asks you to create their website for free in exchange for placing your name in the fine print, will that really help you gain more clients? It might, if they are a world-famous blogger that accumulates millions of views every month. But even then, the exposure you would gain is not likely to catapult your business.
However, if your friend agrees to write a blog post about how your websites are different and why people should hire you, the exposure you could gain may be worth it.
Before agreeing to work for exposure, ensure that you ask specific questions: How many people will your work be exposed to? How many target clients will be in that audience?
It is also worth keeping in mind that usually, the bigger the audience, the more money an individual or organization should have in the budget to pay you. So, if they are refusing to pay you for your time and your services, you may want to think twice.
4. It is a cause you actually believe in.
There are certainly times when working for free is about giving, rather than gaining. So, if there is an organization or a charity that could use your help, assisting them could be time well spent. Just make sure you are not expecting it to kickstart your career.
Set limits on how much volunteer work you do. Whether you decide that you can give one hour per week or one day per year, a concrete time limit can ensure that you are not overextending yourself. Then, when asked to do more work for free, you can say “I have already reached my limit of how much volunteer work I can do.”
As well as some tips as you’re starting out:
Be smart. Make it clear to clients that they are getting special deal, and that you’re working for free because you benefit too.
Limit the scope of any ‘strategically free’ work – don’t write clients a blank check. For example, you will do a specific deliverable, or you will work ‘x’ number of hours per week for no more than one month.
Get the terms in writing, with the client agreeing to do something in lieu of paying cash. For example, confirming you can name their brand as a client, approving your using the work in your portfolio, serving as a reference and/or providing their services to you.
Send ‘strategically free’ clients an invoice – for the total, discounted to zero. Even if they paid nothing, this helps to reinforce that they received something of value.
All this to say, the most important thing is that you value your time.
Many organizations make big promises about how doing work for them for free will help you. But unfortunately, most of those claims and promises simply are not true.
Don’t get lured or guilt-tripped into something based on the claim that your work could “turn into something big.” There is a good chance that you will end up donating a lot of your time and efforts without getting anything in return.
Ultimately, if you do not value your time, other people will not either. So, it is important to know your worth. And if you are going to do some work for free, be intentional about it. Make sure it is something that makes sense for your business.