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It’s always exciting to hear from customers or potential clients when you’re self-employed.
But, if you’ve been in business long enough as an artist, musician, blogger, speaker, photographer, designer, coach, or personal trainer, there’s a good chance someone’s asked you to perform quality work without budgeting money to pay you.
Freelancers from all professions get asked to work for free.
Those asking will try to convince you that more exposure will skyrocket your business. Or that the opportunity to showcase your creative work will shine in your portfolio or on your resume.
Another hook to get you to work without pay? Agreeing to this unpaid opportunity will lead to compensation in the future.
Will it really lead to money rolling in later? Sometimes. But often it won’t.
That’s why it’s important to review reasons to turn down unpaid opportunities and also look at situations when working for free might make sense.
Below, you’ll also find a list of questions to consider when someone asks you to perform without pay. Plus, examples of responses to give when you’ve no interest in working for exposure or experience only.
Why Performance Without Pay Doesn’t Make Sense
There are plenty of reasons to turn down work that doesn’t pay. Let’s start with the most obvious one.
1. You Could Be Doing Paid Gigs
You’ve heard the expression, “time is money” right? Always remember how valuable your time is when it comes to your business and personal life.
You aren’t making money from paying customers when you choose to spend time producing free content, goods, or other services. Even if you didn’t have a paid opportunity lined up, you’re giving up time you could use in your business to help it grow.
You may also be giving up rare personal time to do things you enjoy or want to accomplish!
When you work for yourself, it’s hard to pay for your expenses, put money back into your business, or invest in your future unless your enterprise is making money.
2. Working For Exposure May Not Bring You Business
People who want you to agree to unpaid work often suggest they’ll be doing you a big favor.
Their take? Exposure to their audience, referrals, mentions, press releases, social media shares, or reviews of your work will boost your business.
But don’t be so quick to believe you’ll get monetary opportunities for your time investment. Your work may leave a great impression on people at an event, but it may not produce any quantifiable successes.
Even if participants take your card with a promise to get in touch, many will never follow up on their initial interest. If contact is made, there’s also a good chance the new customer will want a reduced rate because they met you while you were working a free gig.
Even worse? They may ask you to work without pay to gain even more exposure!
Working for exposure is not the “free advertising” that people claim it to be.
Freelancing isn’t a hobby. And in order to get hired, prospective clients need to be aware of your business. But you want to ensure your work gets in front of your target group audience, not just any audience.
Just remember, bigger and different audiences may increase the chance you’ll make money eventually. But it’s no guarantee of future paying work.
3. Working For Free Can Hurt Other Freelancers
You may not realize it, but working for free can negatively impact other budding entrepreneurs.
The more freelancers agree to unpaid or low-pay work, the more bottom lines of everyone’s business can be hurt. Because unless you’re in high demand, it may be tough to find clients willing to pay full price (or even close) for your talents.
Clients may expect discounts on your goods and services, try to negotiate prices, or threaten to take their business elsewhere because they know others in your field say “yes” to low pay or unpaid opportunities.
Writing one free blog post or performing some spec work can be a stepping stone as you launch your business. Continuing to perform work without pay isn’t good for you or others striving for fair compensation.
4. Women Already Perform Enough Unpaid Labor
If you’re trying to run a successful business, working for free can hurt your personal and financial health.
Women are already expected to perform many hours of unpaid work each month. They don’t need to add free business work hours to their busy schedules.
While there may be a few legitimate reasons to agree to work for free as you grow your business, women need to place a higher value on their time and say no to working without compensation more often.
Is Working Without Pay the Same as Volunteering?
Before we discuss when you might work without pay, let’s look at unpaid work vs. volunteering.
While these two terms may be mistaken as synonyms, volunteering and working without pay aren’t the same. Money doesn’t exchange hands for services you provide in either case, but there are significant differences to consider.
Volunteering should be an unconditional gift of your time and effort.
You choose to volunteer because you believe in the organization’s mission, feel a sense of achievement, and value your commitment to serve.
You may receive a gift or some compensation (not usually monetary) for participating. But you shouldn’t expect anything in return for volunteering efforts.
Those who agree to work without pay expect to benefit from that commitment.
Your goal may be to gain experience and portfolio work while finding new customers through exposure from your free gigs.
When you can trade services or find another win-win solution benefiting you, working without monetary compensation may also make sense. But freelancers striving to build their dream career don’t work for free simply to help out others. That’s where volunteering comes in.
When to Consider Unpaid Work
Some freelancers or business owners won’t work for free, and that can make sense for them. When you have a thriving business, you likely have repeat customers and get plenty of work through word-of-mouth referrals.
Yet there are some advantages to doing unpaid work for the right reasons. And you can find real value in doing so.
When approached correctly, it can produce tangible outcomes such as expanding your business into a new area or gaining higher-paying customers. Results that won’t have you regretting working for free initially.
1. You Want or Need the Experience
When you’re just starting your business, you may need to dive into unpaid work experiences. Free gigs can help build up your resume and credibility, expand your portfolio, and gain positive references and reviews of your work.
Still, you’ll want to set goals and figure out in advance how much work you’ll do for free. Then, make sure you hold yourself to that time limit.
Experienced freelancers may even agree to work without pay in some situations.
Would you receive some useful design experience you might not otherwise?
Could you use the unpaid gig as a case study to develop something new or expand on a current product or service?
When offered the chance to do something you’ve always wanted to do, provide your expert opinion in a major publication, or work at an event you’d pay to attend, working for free allows you to have experiences you won’t regret.
2. You Trust You’ll Get Real (and the Right) Exposure
When you get a request for a free project, take time to determine the level and type of exposure you’re likely to get. Putting your work in front of a big audience is one thing.
But exposure to the right people matters more when it comes to finding paying customers.
- Are you a featured artist, or will you be one of many in the creative profession at the event?
- Is the person requesting your work in any position of power to help you make connections? Or have they just been put in charge of finding free talent or soliciting spec work?
- Will you receive free advertising from agreeing to work? Or will you be highlighted on a major label or large social media channel?
The more that’s in it for you, the better. But make sure the benefits you receive from the unpaid work align with goals to grow your business.
3. You’ll Benefit In Other Ways From the Unpaid Work
There’s always the chance you can make a deal with someone who asks you to work for free. Consider ways they may be able to compensate you if they don’t have a budget to pay you.
If you’re a blogger producing a piece of unpaid content, will they include you as a contributor on their website and link to your social handles and writing portfolio?
As a freelance graphic designer, you may agree to free design work if your name and contact info are included in marketing materials or websites.
Photographers may agree to a free photoshoot for a costume designer, in exchange for some free costume props they can use in other photoshoots with paying clients.
Artists may work with local businesses by providing free artwork in exchange for free display space to sell other pieces.
When you’re able to get a tangible benefit or something of real value to you or your business from the deal, it’s a win-win for everyone involved.
Just be sure you put everything in writing. This will help ensure valuable relationships aren’t destroyed if someone questions what was agreed to on both sides.
Questions to Answer Before Agreeing to Free Gigs
Whether or not you should work for free is challenging to answer.
When you’re struggling through the thought process, consider your responses to the following questions. Understanding how they align with your business plans will help you make a decision.
1. Do you trust the person requesting to follow through with anything they’ve promised regarding this work?
When you have a relationship with the person or know people who’ve been happy working with them, there’s a better chance they’ll follow through with whatever they’re promising.
But don’t forget to obtain a signed written agreement.
2. What are you expecting in return for working without pay?
When you’re unsure of how you’ll benefit from the potential exposure or experience, there’s a good chance you’ll regret taking it.
3. Can you make the time investment needed for this unpaid work, and can you afford not to receive compensation?
When you’re already overloaded and need the money from paying customers to “keep the lights on,” pass on requests to work for free.
4. What else could you do for your business with the time you’ll spend working for free?
When there are other ways to grow your business, you may want to spend your time working for yourself on your projects.
5. Has this person asked you to work for free before?
If you’ve already performed for this person without receiving pay, how much business did it bring in? Did it help you build an email list? What do the hard numbers say?
Don’t get taken advantage of if there aren’t monetary benefits down the road from providing your service.
6. Is the person making the request of you making money from your free work?
When the unpaid labor you’re providing is making the other party money, they should be able to compensate you somehow.
7. Are other people working for free?
Don’t hesitate to ask if others are working without getting paid.
8. Do you think you’ll regret turning the offer down or taking it after agreeing to it?
When you’re excited about the opportunity, you probably won’t regret it – even if you don’t walk away with more business. But if you already have doubts about taking on the free work, it’s a good idea to turn it down.
Ways To Respond To Requests For Free Work
The first time you receive a request to write, speak, design, or do some other work for free, you might be honored.
It’s thrilling when someone’s interested in sharing your work with their audience or providing you with a platform. But as those requests become more frequent, you’ll quickly recognize when “we don’t have a budget to pay you” will be part of the deal.
Here are some things you can say when someone asks you to work without pay. (Hint: People-pleasers, might need to choose one and practice it often so you won’t agree to something you don’t want to do!)
- “Thanks so much for the opportunity. Please send me the specific details of the event. I’ll check my availability and get back to you when I have free time.” This polite response gets you more information while buying you time before making any commitment.
- “I already have a lot of experience in this area, and exposure doesn’t often bring in new clients. If there’s another way we can partner, I’d be open to exploring it.” You’ll be educating the person making the ask about your lack of interest in unpaid work. Without being rude, you also open the door to a different type of working relationship.
- “I’m willing to do “X” for you for free. But I won’t commit to what you’re asking unless you come up with a budget for the work.” This shows your willingness to consider the request and even offer them something for free. But it still makes it clear you’re running a business and expect payment for the rest of the work.
- “I don’t work for free. But I can provide the names of some new freelancers who might have an interest in your offer.” You’re making a clear statement you have no interest in free work while still offering assistance.
- “Do you work for free?” This is an honest question you might respond with when someone asks you to work without pay. With all the professional attitude you can muster, of course. You can simply say “no thanks”. But this question turns the tables on the requestor and forces them to respond to (or at least consider) what they’re requesting of you.
Final Thoughts On Working Without Pay
Being a freelancer or entrepreneur is challenging. You work hard to get clients, keep them, and make money from your business. That’s why it’s crucial to understand how to deal with requests to work for free.
Unfortunately, some people take advantage of self-employed individuals by asking them for favors. Or by promising more future business by taking on gigs for exposure with no immediate financial benefits.
You may choose to work for experience only. Or opt to build your writing or design portfolio by offering free labor. Just remember increased exposure alone won’t always provide a tangible return for creative professionals.
Only you can ultimately decide what your time is worth. But we urge you not to give it away without some type of compensation. Unless, of course, you choose to volunteer it.
Vicki and Amy are authors of Estate Planning 101, From Avoiding Probate and Assessing Assets to Establishing Directives and Understanding Taxes, Your Essential Primer to Estate Planning, from Adams Media.