Is It Ever A Good Idea To Work For Free?

Illustrated by Mallory Heyer.
By Jen Dziura

Should you ever work for free?

NO! ...Except sometimes for nonprofits. And, your friends. And, when you're just starting out. And, when you're building your portfolio. So, maybe you should work for free a little, right?

If you're even considering  working for free, you're probably in a creative profession — writing, filmmaking, fashion, live performance. It's rare that anyone asks a dental hygienist or a bartender to work for free.

Let's get more specific. I believe in contracts. I believe in quantifying everything. I believe that if someone wants you to work for free, you can take charge of the situation and turn it into cash (or something else of value). At the very least, you should know how to say no with your dignity intact and the power dynamic favorable to you.

Behold: a five-step strategy for how to make more than the cash value of your work when working for "free," what to ask for instead of money, and how to turn a non-paying gig into a paying one. 

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Exposure Isn't Always Bankable
Ever heard this one? "Compensation in exposure only."

If you are working for free for something so ultra-cool that big corporations will do anything for a piece of it, then maybe that statement is true. Like the person who follows around famed street artist Banksy and takes photos of his graffiti. It is sometimes possible to do something bleeding-edge awesome for free, and then sell yourself to corporations for $3,000 a day. You do some work for a celebrity and then use that to sell something to suburbanites hungry for some small connection to glamour? Maybe.

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In this hypothetical case of following around Banksy, you're not working entirely for free. You're building up coolness and later trading the coolness to less-cool people in exchange for money. I call it coolness arbitrage. (The definition of "coolness" clearly varies from milieu to milieu — and substitute "prestige" for "coolness," if that makes more sense in your line of work.)

But, if you are working for a normal, boring company — an entity already less cool/prestigious than yourself — for free, why would some other company think you're worth real money? You can't trade cool for cash, because you didn't trade your work for cool.

Maybe the company you're doing the free work for suggested they might pay you later. This is unlikely (unless you get it in writing). How are you going to negotiate your rate when the person you're negotiating with knows your last gig paid zero?
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Illustrated by Mallory Heyer.
Nonprofits Don't Get A Free Pass
This might seem counter-intuitive. After all, don't nonprofits "deserve" work-for-free, while for-profits don't?

Sure, many good causes are worth supporting. But, there are plenty of nonprofits out there that just aren't my top issues. Donating your services to a nonprofit you aren't passionate about isn't any different from just giving them your rent money.

As many wise people have said, if a nonprofit is paying the caterer — or the agency that contacted you — they have it in their budget to pay you too.

Furthermore, free work for nonprofits usually looks like free work. If you made a website for your local ASPCA, I can look at that website, decide that it's nice and that you're a nice person, and then hire you. And, I can also tell that you sometimes work for free.

And, when I say nonprofit, I mean a real, registered nonprofit. Not a band or a club. Little League teams and such are even more obvious. Plenty of nonprofits do pay for slick marketing because it helps them get donations; a Cub Scout troop does not.

Finally, nonprofits, no matter how much they like your work, are not likely to hire you at the end. So, work for a nonprofit for free if it's a cause you would donate money to. Don't do it just to build your career.
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Illustrated by Mallory Heyer.
Assume The Person Wants To Barter
If someone asks you to work for free, and you have other sources of income and really want to work with them, try asking, "Sure, I'm open to negotiating arrangements. What can you offer?"

Don't ask to negotiate — assume. Graciously give the person the benefit of the doubt that of course they intended some reciprocal benefit. It's so nice of you to save the person from the huge social blunder of looking like they're trying to exploit you.

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Even if it's a random, boring small business, you might get surprising offers, like "as an insurance firm, we cannot offer free insurance, but my spouse is a massage therapist and would be willing to provide a 10-pack of massages." I have been offered Qigong in exchange for SAT tutoring. You never know. If you get offered the cash value of your work in wedding cakes, you can always say no.

If you do get an offer and you want to negotiate, keep in mind that you should get more than the cash value of your work, since you're accepting in-kind compensation (payment where no money is involved). As in, “"A fair amount would be either $1,500 in advertising value or $1,000 in cash. I'm open to either."

One bonus to this technique is that the person who asked you to work for free really looks like an ass if they respond, "Yeah, we can't really offer you anything."
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Illustrated by Mallory Heyer.
Quantify The Exposure
Working for exposure is indeed possible! It's just that these arrangements are almost never negotiated fairly (or negotiated at all), and almost never quantified.

Exposure is quantifiable. People sell exposure every day. It's called advertising. It is sold per click, per pageview, per minute, per quarter-page. Advertising is one of the most quantifiable things there is. If you are asked to work for "exposure," ask for numbers so you can quantify the "exposure." Then get it in writing.

For example:

Thanks for the offer. I might be interested in an in-kind trade of services for exposure. Here is one way that could work:

I see that you have about 6,500 Twitter followers. I estimate that a project like the one you're proposing would take about four weeks. During that time, I'd like two tweets per week linking to @mybusiness and, to be tweeted during peak hours of 8-10 a.m. and 6-8 p.m. Done right, this would also help build excitement for the project from your followers.

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If they hedge, tell them you just want to quantify and get their offer of "exposure" in writing, so you can determine its cash value to your business and make sure the agreement is fair on all sides. If they can't specify exactly what the "exposure" will consist of, then it doesn't exist.

If they offered you "exposure" and then balk at a specific written agreement about the exposure to be provided, they are liars.
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Illustrated by Mallory Heyer.
Have A Clear Start And End Point
Do not go into a pro-bono arrangement intended to last indefinitely. At the very least, write in the contract that "both parties will reevaluate in three months, with option to renew."

But, we can do better than that. You're not getting a paycheck, so don't think of yourself as an employee. Think of yourself as a business owner. The client who's getting something for free is hardly your most valuable client. You want to get an in-kind value from them, and then either move on or on-board them to a paid level of service.

To do this, you need to be in control. Don't "work for free" — instead, enroll certain companies in your "pro-bono program," which you are in charge of.

At the beginning, say:

I do have a pro-bono program, actually, where I provide this service to one pro-bono client per quarter. In exchange, I use the client's before-and-after images and case study on my website and in my social media, and the client provides targeted exposure via their own Web, email list, and social media presences. We can work out the details if this sounds like what you're looking for. Pro-bono engagements last about eight weeks.

Get the agreement in writing. Do the work. Get your testimonials, publish your data, bask in the dedicated emails and blog posts you've negotiated for. When the pro-bono program is coming to an end, don't just sit and wait to be "chosen" for a paying gig.

Take control. Offer the client the same service you've been providing, at a specific rate. Make it easy for them to sign up. The power of inertia — staying with a current service provider — is strong.

If someone does suggest that you keep working for free, don't say, "I have to pay my rent" or "I really can't work for free." It doesn’t have to be about you insisting that your work is worth something. That is not dignified. You're not a Dickensian orphan. It's none of anyone's business what your rent costs or what the very minimum you need to stay alive is. Keep control of the conversation.

Instead, you can say something like, "Unfortunately, a client can't go through my pro-bono program more than once — you've graduated!"

Whether the gig becomes a paying one or not, the balance of power is correct here, and you don't damage your credibility as a professional — who charges accordingly.

NEXT: Five Ways To Kill It As A Freelancer