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Should you work for free?Stijn Schutyser
Working for free? You probably think I’m crazy. While most of my colleagues would agree with you, I’m really not when it comes to the topic of this blog post. There are advantages and disadvantages to working for free (perhaps more than you imagine), and it’s often pretty difficult to actually make a right call. So, in this blog post, let me help you determine whether you should work for free or not!
When it’s okay to work for free…
Let’s start with some pros. First of all, working for free can help you build experience and a body of work (a.k.a. your portfolio). Working pro bono is often how you can get some of your best portfolio pieces when you’re just starting out. Secondly, if you’re experiencing some ‘dry time’, doing pro bono work can keep you sharp and busy – and we all know nothing attracts business like a busy person. Prospective clients don’t necessarily have to know you’re working pro bono, though… 🙂
However, there’s also an advantage to letting people know you’re working for free: doing a self-contained task for free can actually be good business. It showcases your chops, builds goodwill, potential word of mouth, and, maybe, the possibility of pay for more. Pro bono work for nonprofits is rewarding and may bring recognition and referrals in time. And if nothing comes of it, that’s fine too. Even with clients willing to pay, opportunities don’t always turn into a new project.
… and when it’s definitely not okay to work for free
So when shouldn’t you work for free? Well, to quote The Joker from Batman: “If you’re good at something, never do it for free.” If you’re not looking to build experience or your portfolio (i.e. when you’re already ‘good’ at something), it’s generally best to charge for your services. The only exception I think you can make here is when small non-profits legitimately can’t afford you and you would love working for them. If you work for free, I believe you have to do it with no expectation of anything other than the satisfaction of your contribution.
Also, people value what they pay for way more than what they get for free. In fact, people generally don’t value free stuff. This blog post is totally free (as are all the other posts I’ve written), and the amount of people who will take action on it is substantially fewer than if I were to package this into a paid course or webinar. That’s just how it works most of the time: we value and respect things we pay for. When applied to freelancing, the same is usually true.
The answer to whether you should work for free is: it depends. And it depends on a lot of stuff: whether you can afford it, have the time, are looking to build connections, develop experience, or just plain want to because it’s for a good cause, like a friend’s startup or contribution work for a nonprofit organization you care about.
When it comes to doing good in the community, freelancers have a special opportunity to put their skills to use. The income’s tiny or nonexistent, but there’s something hugely gratifying about discovering your skills really matter; in fact, they make a survival difference to an organization. As a freelancer, you can ply your trade for whomever you choose and that for no other reason than that it matters to you.