When is it OK to work for Free?

When should you work for free? That can be a tricky question to answer sometimes… We discuss the pros and cons of working for free across eleven different scenarios. (Also available as a podcast episode to listen to – link at the bottom of this page))

[Updated 1 March 2022 – Podcast link added]

Money tree - when is it ok to work for free?
Photo by Visual Stories || Micheile on Unsplash

Recently, I had a call from a potential client to whom I had submitted a proposal. While they wanted to go ahead with the project they said their cash situation was tight and they would be unable to pay me my fee. Instead, they offered a place in their training program in lieu of dollars. Would you say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to this arrangement?

This conversation has prompted me to think: When is it OK to work for free?

It’s a perennial question that seems to pop up at some stage for most of us solo business operators. Here are a few thoughts to help you answer this for yourself in your unique situation.

1 Never

Some people are black and white. And on the question of working for free, they have the same answer regardless of the situation: Never. This can be a useful frame for valuing your time and your expertise. And, I think it misses the nuances of the situation.

2 Currency

Matt Church from Thought Leaders talks about being paid in your preferred currency. This goes beyond money. Your currency may be a barter of services, hope for future work, wanting to help out, positioning and ego.

If you are going to take on a job for free, you need to be really clear about the currency you are accepting. At the least I think you need to weigh up the cost to you in terms of time, effort and energy against the very real and specific value you’ll receive in return.

3 Mates Rates

One of the great attractions of working for yourself is having some choice about who your clients are. And, one of the great temptations is to work with our friends – often at mates’ rates. This could be a reduced fee, as a no-fee favour or as an exchange of services.

In my experience… BEWARE! The problem with these types of deals is that we treat the project differently than when we work with a fee-paying client. More specifically, we skip the details because we know and trust the other person.

When things go smoothly life is good. However, when some aspects of the project change and the expectations of either party are not met it can become messy. For instance, what happens when they fail to take your advice, they have different standards to yours and decide to cut corners or they simply change the game plan?

Are you willing to have tough conversations with your colleagues? The ultimate risk is that we harm our friendship by not agreeing.

4 To Gain Experience

When I was in architecture school, I worked for a couple of large practices during the summer break to gain some first-hand experience. I travelled two hours a day to be there, spent most of my time printing drawings and was paid very little for my effort. Was it worth it? Maybe. It gave me a real insight into what I didn’t want in the future!

The problem with doing something to ‘gain experience’ is that you never know what experience you’re going to gain.

If you are considering this, be sure to confirm the role and responsibilities to gauge if it is going to be worthwhile.

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5 All About Them

Whenever a potential client offers not to pay for your services, it’s worth listening closely to the reason for their decision. For instance:

  • Our cash flow is tight
  • It will lead to future work
  • We want to check you out

The common theme amongst these responses is that they are all about them. If you hear this, I suggest you run a mile!

6 Specific

The difficulty of evaluating an offer to work for free is often because the deal is not clear. For instance, you don’t know:

  • How much time it will take
  • What you will learn
  • The conditions in which you will work.

If you can gain clarity about these things you can decide more effectively if you want to do them. For instance, the guru in your field was flying into town and you had the opportunity to pick her up from the airport, be their support during the day and take them back to the airport for a 7 pm flight. At least this is a clear and specific agreement. And, you can evaluate the worst-case scenario – that’s it’s only one day.

7 Free Lunch

If I were paid a dollar for every time I’ve been invited to lunch for someone to pick my brain, then I probably wouldn’t need to work! How ironic.

The biggest downside of giving away my expertise for free or for lunch is that it is usually not valued. I’ve shared some of my best ideas with people for no dollars and in 99% of cases, they haven’t done anything about it. For me, in terms of an exchange of value, that’s the ultimate point of dissatisfaction.

I spoke about the free lunch situation with Gihan Perera on his podcast. He had some strong views on this – and I think he’s right.

8 Pro-Bono

It’s fairly common for people to offer their services to a charity or not-for-profit as a donated or pro-bono service. This is a good example of choosing your currency. If you think this is the right thing to do and your work is valued then go for it.

The other side of this equation is that a not-for-profit organization is a business like any other. The only difference is that the profits are kept within the business to fund their programs and not shared with the owners. In this context rather than work for free, you may choose to offer your services at a reduced fee.

Either way, one way to be clear about the value you are providing the organization is to submit an invoice with your fees for service clearly stated. You can then decide to donate some or all of your fee back to the organization.

9 Sales Opportunity

Another fairly common example of working for free is to offer a presentation in exchange for the opportunity to offer something for sale. For example, you may offer a free webinar or face-to-face seminar and during the event, you offer a special deal on your products or services.

If you are making this arrangement with someone else’s audience you need to be clear on:

  • The quantity and type of people who will attend
  • The level of value that will be provided during the presentation – eg 90% content, 10% sales.
  • Any sharing of profit on sales generated.

In some cases, with the right audience, some speakers are able to generate considerably more income with this model than had they been paid a set fee.

10 Marketing Partnerships

A marketing partnership is when you deliberately form a mutually beneficial agreement to work with someone else. This could be like in our previous point where you might present to someone else’s audience and you split the sales.

The key to a great marketing partnership is the mutual benefit that is worked out in advance.

For more on this we interviewed Simon Novello from Partnerup on our Ideas Architect podcast.

11 Content Marketing

Creating and sharing your best ideas online and giving them away to anyone who wants to devour them is called Content Marketing. This is working for free with the aim of building your reputation, showcasing your expertise and attracting new clients.

Comment: What has been your experience of working for free? Have you always said ‘no’? Have you been caught out? When has it worked for you?

Podcast – Listen to this post

This post is also available as episode 64 of the Ideas Architect Podcast. Click on the link below to listen, download and share.

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