When Is It Okay To Work For Free?

woman working for free

From freelancers to business owners to professionals, there comes a certain level of success when people start to ask for favors. Maybe they want you to write a blog post, or offer some advice regarding a contract, or “pick your brain” about your industry for an hour over coffee.

At what point is it a good idea to work for free?

Will it actually build your resume?

If you started in one niche of an industry and are looking to branch out into another niche, you might decide that it’s worth it to do some work without pay for the experience. You know that the work you’re going to turn out will be at a slightly lesser quality than your current standard, because you’re learning something new, but it’s worth it to your customer, because it’s still better than what they can afford.

If you’re going to end your free work with something truly unique to add to your resume, it might be worth working for free.

Can you reuse something you already got paid for?

From charity auctions to portfolio samples, your first goal should be to use something that you’ve already created. By reusing items you’ve already created, you save time on your end while still giving the organization what they need.

Be careful with offering to reuse items; depending on your contract, it may not be possible. Work created for hire generally has all rights transferred to the client unless otherwise specified, so a writer wouldn’t be able to reuse a blog post or article without permission.

Are you giving to a cause you believe in?

When you’re donating something to a cause that you particularly believe in, whatever that might be, you might have a different internal metric for determining whether or not it makes sense to work without payment. You might decide that linking your brand to the cause in question is going to be so worthwhile in the long run that getting paid isn’t necessary.

Are you getting the right kind of exposure?

Particularly in creative endeavors like writing, artwork, and graphic design, people are fond of saying that you should give them your work for free because they’ll get you exposure. Be incredibly wary of these claims. There are many reasons to be suspicious of exposure.

  • What kind of exposure will you get? If you’re not getting exposed to an audience that’s going to be interested in your product or service, it’s not worth anything to you.
  • Can the client afford to pay for your service, and they’re choosing not to? There are some companies online that pay in “exposure” and have earned themselves a very bad reputation amongst creatives because they appear to be able to pay for work, but simply choosing not to. Exposure doesn’t pay rent.

If you’re going to get quality exposure to a market that you think will be interested in your service, which you would have difficulty accessing without free work, then yes, working for free might work.

Are you getting paid, just not in cash?

Remember our friend who wanted a favor over coffee? When you consider whether or not to say yes, consider whether or not they have something to offer in return. Perhaps they’re an expert on graphic design, and need some tips on marketing themselves, and you need a new logo for your social media management business. Suddenly, your coffee date turned into a barter situation.

Not all payment needs to be in cash, as long as you can actually use the service that’s being offered in trade.

Would you have said yes anyway?

Did the person requesting free work just beat you to the punch, because you were about to call them and offer it? In that case, it’s a pretty good chance that it’s worth giving away your work.

Every entrepreneur has done some work without pay at one time or another. Sometimes it’s about getting that crucial first client, and sometimes it’s about breaking into a market you couldn’t get into otherwise. Before you do any free work, make sure you can afford it, make sure that you’re excited to do it, and try to reuse something if possible. If you can get something in return, do it.

You can’t build a business working for free, but you can solidify your market position with the careful application of free work, in the right situations.


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