Is it Ever OK to Work for Free?

crown and glory Kat Alexa Loy-36

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.

crown and glory Kat Alexa Loy-90

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.

crown and glory Kat Alexa Loy-175

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?

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18 comments

  1. Yes! I agree with everything but would also add that when you work for free or discounted one time, it can become very difficult to charge more the next time you’re approached by the same client – so think VERY carefully!

  2. I have done lots of work for free whilst trying to work out a career path. I am really 50/50 on it some has been brilliant portfolio improving stuff while others has been demoralising- these more often than not have been unpaid internships within companies. I found myself to be just “another intern” with no chance of career progression within that company and no experience gained.
    I am however my own worst enemy when it comes to choosing things and if I’ve done something particularly worthless as far as free work is concerned I refer to this brilliant article http://biznik.com/articles/freelancingor-working-for-free and I move on!

    I think there is a big difference between working for free and collaborating on portfolio building- that as long as everyone is getting something out of it is always worth while.

  3. I agree with a lot of what you say and you make some brilliant points.
    I started off working for free, writing poems for couples for a purely voluntary donation and I found that people sent me gifts and money, but the most useful thing was the feedback I received. This gave me the confidence I needed to go for it as a sole trader and since I had a logo designed and became a business, I’ve found so many other wedding businesses have been impressed enough by the portfolio I built up and the feedback, to want to work with me, even to the point of offering to give out my cards for free at castle wedding fairs which they have paid to attend!

  4. “I think there is a big difference between working for free and collaborating on portfolio building- that as long as everyone is getting something out of it is always worth while.”

    I agree with Poppy here completely. (Hello Poppy!).

    Great post Kat! I’ve had many friends come to me asking “Should I do this, it’s unpaid”. It’s a hard one to figure out, especially if you are just starting out. When we started our business we did find it hard to say no to any opportunities that came our way and learnt a lot from getting involved. Some positive, some negative. However, some of our regular returning clients have came from doing an initial project for free, or at a discounted rate.

    It’s a tough one, but my business partner and I always say “go with your gut”. It’s been right every time for us so far!

    x

  5. Yes I definitely think so – it gives you an opportunity to take on projects you might not get paid to do yet and helps broaden your experience so that you can… It can also be an opportunity for creativity and pushing yourself doing something new without the restrictions of a paying client. I’m just very careful I don’t do it very often and for the right project and people on a day I am not already booked – I need to get something from the experience as well as who I’m shooting for – can be lots of fun too! 🙂

  6. If someone approaches you offering you a great opportunity to show off your work out of the blue chances are it isn’t. I think it all depends on an agreement on what you want to achieve from the experience and going with your gut instinct if you think it won’t be met.

    I like working in collaboration,I find it a hugely creative process to work with amazing people with an end goal in mind so long as you all know where they stand and all have equal rights in the process and results. It’s also great for networking and supporting the people you respect and collaborate with. I love working within a band of focused creatives, but like any relationship it must be fair, honest and subject to change. So it’s always a great idea to research and meet face to face with your co-conspirators before you spend your hard earned time and effort on someone else’s behalf.

  7. First time commenter, long time reader & fan! 🙂

    As a relative ‘newbie’ Photographer, this was such an important factor for me when I very first started out. After all, for some professions (like photography) it’s like the age-old adage ‘what came first, the chicken or the egg?’. You can’t get a portfolio without work, but you sure as heck can’t get work without a portfolio! So offering free photo shoots was a critical & a positive decision that I made from day one.
    Even though I was giving my time and skills for free, I was also crucially learning on the job. I had ready & willing models who were happy to receive some photos of themselves in exchange for me practising lighting techniques, shot angles, retouching and so much more. Invaluable lessons learned first hand on the job and on an excitingly steep learning curve!
    As you develop your skills though, yes, you have to be careful not to undervalue yourself. After all, your skills, abilities, efficiency, confidence, speed, technique, contacts (the list goes on!) will be so much better than when you embarked on that first ever ‘free’ gig.
    I’m thankfully at a point now where I charge, but I’m still realistic. My experience is good but it doesn’t warrant the price list that other photographers could charge, so I don’t. I evaluate what I can offer/my USP and price myself very competitively – reputation and recommendation are strong commodities that I want to capitalise on early on.
    Plus, I’m certainly still collaborating all over the place! With stylists, make-up artists, small film companies, property resorts… we all gain as long as everyone’s upfront, everyone gets what they need from the joint venture and any arrangements are clear from the start. It’s also a great way to explore new avenues of work and to push myself with new challenges I may otherwise not get from my paid bookings.
    As long as I’m enjoying my work, feel like my portfolio is growing and developing my techniques, it’s all good with me 🙂

  8. Working for free is OK as long as it’s for a specific (and important) reason and for a fixed amount of time. Companies that string you along indefinitely with the vague possibility of paid work that never appears are taking advantage of you.

    I agree that it’s best to go with your instinct – if it doesn’t seem worth it then it probably isn’t.

  9. I actually recently talked to a group about 80% of your time being paid and 10% for charity and 10% mutually beneficial collaborations. Some (well paying) doors will only open after charity or collaboration. Charity can be an individual who needs a break or with a formal organization. Many successful people work off of a similar formula.

  10. Celi

    Love this!

    I only disagree with the point on nonprofits. Yes, some people get paid and some people offer services pro bono, but I don’t think its tacky to charge. I work for a nonprofit and while we generally don’t expect to pay full price, we don’t expect everything for free.

    Every dollar that we spend on other efforts is a dollar that doesn’t go to our cause. However, we know that those marketing dollars are an investment that will generate a return, the same as traditional business.

  11. loren whitehouse

    Yes, working for free can be a great thing. I’m a volunteer for a local tv company in kirklees, whilst I’m at uni doing a film and television degree. Because they can’t pay me, they provide expenses and introduce me to other influential people and also have paid for me to do my level 3 ilm certificate in coaching and are also going to pay for me to learn my level 5 qualification. Without volunteering I wouldn’t have had these experiences or options I now have. Also, without the pressure of a pay check my bosses are now my friends. Win win all round.

  12. I rarely get asked to work for free these days, but it does sometimes happen – normally to cover some event in return for ‘exposure’ (boom boom). The ‘is everyone else working for free’ question is generally the way to filter these out.

    In regard to the charity element, I’ve done some charity events for free, but it’s generally, again, when there are other people donating their time and energy as well. I do regular work for The Firefighters’ Charity, and as Kat stated, as with all large charities, they expect to pay a fair price for services.

  13. I am all for offering a trade for a trade.. Like back in the old days.. A loaf of bread for some apples, a horse for a cow and all that.. But I think it does definitely have to be mutually beneficial for both parties, it has to be an equal offering.

    Working for free has managed to get me some great exposure in the past and I will continue to be open to working for free if I feel the marketing is in it for me and if I think I could get a booking out of running the photo booth at particularly popular event for example.

    It does become easier to be selective over certain enquiries the more successful you become because you have more freedom to pick and chose and your time becomes worth more, in the beginning I did everything I could to promote the business and if that included working for free on the odd occasion, I did it. It seems to have worked.

    Great post! x

  14. I agree that working for free can be great for your career or your business as long as it’s part of a win-win scenario. When I started working in Film&TV (and then in Fashion) I put in a LOT of free hours which was hard but also opened up a lot of doors for me. I got a lot of experience from it (which filled my then empty CV) and I also got to meet a lot of people who then helped me to get paid jobs down the line.

    That being said, I think it’s also important to have the right attitude when it comes to working for free. There’s nothing worse than to work with someone who doesn’t put in 100% because they’re not getting paid and who spend the entire day complaining about it. Make sure that you are happy with your decision first or you will end up wasting not only your time but other people’s time as well.

    x Pearl

  15. Lottie

    I have found to be cautious when working for friends, and have to admit I lost a friend after making her wedding dress for her. After telling me what she wanted, and that she loved it all the way through my making it. I was working a full-time job (and it was busy season, and making a dress for payment at the same time. I stayed up night after night, and traveled back and fourth (100 miles each way) for fittings. The day before she told me that she had gone to a bridal shop and bought an entirely different dress to wear, and that she wanted to sell the dress I had made so she could make some money to pay for it.
    🙁

  16. I guess it really depends on your state of mind when you start thinking about charging…

    For my part it started off as a passion that I ended up doing just for friends and charity or volonteering events until one day somebody I didn’t know asked me how much I charged. I never though I could actually do that. Valuing your worth is no easy task in my opinion, I find it extremly hard to judge my own work because, let’s face it, it’s mine and I wouldn’t do it if I though that it wasn’t any good ! I would probably not charge, nor work with anyone else than my friends, if nobody actually asked about it.

    I started off with single price see if that would bring clients in… that allow me to build up a portfolio quick quickly and 3 month later i was setting up a business.

    Now I charge unless this is a special project that would enlarge my panel of style. I always offer discounts to people who come from from a close friend. And it works ! But sometimes clients are just not what you would expect : i had a client wanted photoshoots for free because “taking pictures is not a job”.

    I still work for free for close friends, charity and volonteering. I also concider it for projects that could open more door and open some new horizons ( like adult portraits since I have been working a LOT with babies ) but those I and only I am the one who decides to offer it and automatically refuse any request to work for free. 🙂

    Thanks for the article ! 🙂 Good work on it once again 😉

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