Is it Ever OK to Work for Free?

Alexa Loy Photography

July 23, 2013

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When it comes to valuing your worth, something which I am a fierce advocate of, it’s not just cold hard cash that can be the deciding factor. While the thought of working for free might initially seem like something that no-one in their right mind would want to do, on the contrary, doing some pro bono work can actually be a really good investment in your business. If you chose your projects and collaborations wisely and correctly use that work as part of a larger campaign or as a stepping stone to something else, it can be a hugely beneficial exercise.

For experience

The very best way to get paid work is to show potential clients that do you do the kind of work that they want. If you’re approached by a company to do something but they don’t have a budget to pay you, ask yourself, will the experience or portfolio content you’re going to get out of this make it worth your while?

Don’t just sit around waiting for these offers to come your way though. It’s up to you to make sure you have the right body of work to show your clients. If you don’t then it’s time to get proactive. If you’re a wedding photographer wanting to shoot alternative weddings but all your current clients are at the traditional end of the market, a great way to do this might be to offer discounts or host a free wedding photography contest that targets the exact market you want to attract. If you’re a designer it’s easier – simply take some time to design some items that will be appreciated by the clients that you want to work with. Just because you’re not getting paid to design something doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be doing it in your own time!

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For exposure

I get a lot of companies wanting to work with me but who only offer exposure in exchange – i.e they’ll mention me in their newsletter, link to me on facebook or write about me on their blog. While it’s very flattering to be asked and all press is good press, I have to consider whether this exposure is going to be a fair exchange for the time and effort I need to put into the project.

I still do work with some companies in exchange for exposure, but I’m very picky. They generally have to have a huge or very specific reach to make it worth my time. There’s nothing wrong with doing the odd piece of work for exposure, especially when you feel its a good match for your brand, just make sure you don’t get taken for a ride. You always need to get something out of the partnership – useful experience, exposure to a wider audience, kudos or opportunities for future growth or paid work.

For close friends

I have a very close circle of friends who, depending on the work of course, I’d always work with for free. I know they’d do the same for me too if the opportunity arose.

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As a trade

Again, if you’re going to trade services with someone, both parties have to get something out of it. If you’re a blogger and you’re accepting gifts in exchange for writing about the company on your blog remember that you do still need to disclose that you’ve been compensated (I wrote a little more about this in my article on the ins and outs of sponsored posts). Also always be aware that as nice as it is to get sent lovely gifts, you can’t pay your mortgage with free hangbags and by always saying yes to these kinds of deals you’re probably killing any opportunity to ever get paid work from these companies.

For charity

Remember that most people that work for charities still get paid. If you’re approached about a job for a charity and you’re asked to donate your skills, first make sure that everyone is else working for free too, no-one is making any money from it and you’re not getting taken for a ride.

Charging a non-profit is pretty tacky. I get approached by charities all the time for various projects but unless I’m really invested in the cause it’s unlikely I’m going to say yes. If you don’t feel particularly passionate about what they do then I think its actually better to just say no than to send them your rates.

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Overall, use your judgement on when to work for free. If it doesn’t feel right, don’t do it. If you feel like the company or client is trying to take advantage, or you don’t think you’re going to get anything out of the collaboration then walk away. The key to working for free is that you still gain something – experience, exposure, connections or the possibility of future work.

I’d love to hear from you on this one, have you ever worked for free? What did you get from the experience and would you do it again?