When should you work for free?

 4 December 2013

When would you work for free? It's a topic of heated debate among freelancers and artists. Author and copywriter Chris Farnell discusses four scenarios where creatives decide to work for free.

Consider offers of free 'exposure' carefully before accepting, and decide whether the work will be enjoyable before agreeing.
Consider offers of free 'exposure' carefully before accepting, and decide whether the work will be enjoyable before agreeing.

When you’re talking to artists or freelancers in any field, there’s one topic that’s bound to start a heated discussion: when do you work for free?

Anyone who has worked freelance quickly gains a new appreciation of the value of their own time. When you take on any work, you’re giving up a chunk of time.

Anyone who has worked freelance quickly gains a new appreciation of the value of their own time.

That’s a chunk of time that could be used working on other projects, which may pay better or ensure a better relationship with a long-term client.

It’s also time you could be spending with your friends and family, making sure the dishes and laundry are done, or for that matter (and it’s amazing how easy it is to forget this one) sleeping.

Under these circumstances, taking on free work doesn’t just mean not getting paid for the work you do, it means not getting paid for the work you could have been doing for money at the same time.

If you work doing any kind of creative activity, whether it’s writing, illustration, design or music, you’ve probably run into people who don’t value those skills has highly as you would like.

You enjoy these activities, they reason, so surely it’s no great favour to ask you to do it for free? It’s the same line of reasoning that makes many of us feel bad about asking to be paid in the first place. But it’s often not as simple as that.

When you’re established, and you have clients competing for your time, it’s easy to demand money. When you’re first starting out, and your talents are relatively unproven, you’ll often be grateful that anyone wants to use your skills.

Sometimes there are genuinely good reasons to work without pay. As journalist Mary Hamilton says, there’s not necessarily anything wrong with working for free, but you should never work for nothing.

Before we go any further, I want to be absolutely clear that here we are talking about freelance work, which means the people that you work for are your customers, not your boss.

This article is about the occasional times when it’s worth working pro bono, not positions that have all the requirements and responsibilities of employment without any of the rights or pay. It’s important to know your rights in that regard.

So, as a freelancer, when might working for free actually be worth it?

1.  Working for free to build contacts

There’s an old and often repeated joke about artists dying of 'exposure'.

If someone wants you to do a drawing, write a blog or play at an event for free, one of the first things they’ll say is that 'it’s great exposure'.

A regular circulation of favours between yourself and other creatives can work out well for everybody.

But the fact is, nobody can pay you for your work if they don’t know who you are. I’ve been working freelance for almost three years, and in that time a lot of my work has come from word of mouth.

Word of mouth is the kind of thing that’s difficult to plan. The zombie movie blog I write for fun has brought me paid work, writing content for an event at the London Science Museum and my old university’s 50th anniversary.

Similarly, blog posts I wrote for The Literary Platform meant I was one of the names the editor went to when she began work on Hack Circus.

However, in each of these cases, the work was work I enjoyed doing for the sake of it.

2. The favour economy

While preparing this article, I spoke to some other creative workers I know, including Steve Sims of Sims Designs.

He pointed out that often performing minor services for free can be important in maintaining long-term relationships with your clients.

"As part of our ongoing partnerships with our clients, we often carry out small changes and updates to websites for free," he told me.

"It doesn't seem fair to charge for a change that in some cases may only take ten minutes, whereas a lot of our competitors will charge a set fee for any small changes."

This is something I’ve often found. There are plenty of times when I’ve done minor redrafting, or written short extra bits of text on my own time to ensure a client feels they’re getting value for money.

However, at the same time, I always make sure I’m the one offering to do that work. I think most freelancers learn to be suspicious of the phrase 'Could you just...'.

Often, it goes further than that. I'm fortunate enough to know people who work in all kinds of creative fields. I know designers, illustrators, musicians, and other writers and editors, many of them good friends.

On a few occasions I’ve provided pieces of copy or a bit of redrafting for their projects in return for promised future pints, and likewise, there have been times when they have provided illustrations or web design advice for the same.

A regular circulation of favours between yourself and people with talents you can use can work out well for everybody.

3. Working for a good cause

Sometimes it’s worth working for free out of sheer altruism. Working at Blink, there have been a few times when we’ve helped organisations such as the Joe Humphries Memorial Trust improve their SEO.

Be clear about what you’re providing beforehand – jobs that don’t have a budget have a tendency to expand.

We’ve done paid work for charities as well. There’s nothing wrong with taking paid work from a charity that has set aside the budget for it, but many smaller organisations simply don’t have the resources to hire someone, and then it can be good to lend a hand.

Just remember to be clear about what you’re providing beforehand – jobs that don’t have a budget have a tendency to expand. Fundamentally, for all the advice I can offer, it comes down to how you feel about the work.

4. Doing creative work for fun

This isn’t the best reason to work for free, but it is the most important.

Whatever other reasons you might agree on, to work without financial reward, you should enjoy the work you’re doing.

When you’re running your own business, you will find your time taken up by all sorts of activities you’d rather not be doing. So if you’re going to give up your valuable free time, you should at least enjoy it.

Personally, I’ve written for sites like The Literary Platform just because I enjoyed reading them, and they gave me a chance to write about subjects I was interested in.

But ideally, fun shouldn’t be the only thing you get out of this work. After all, most of us went into working for ourselves because we wanted to get paid to do something we enjoy.

There are a lot of good reasons to work other than money, and we’ve only covered the tip of the iceberg here.

If you feel like you’re being taken advantage of, there’s a very good chance that you are. If that’s the case, there’s never anything to lose by simply walking away.

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