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When and How to Work for Free

creative business, designCara OrdComment

Working for free, a scary thought when you are trying to build your business or start a career. It consumes time which could be used as billable hours, and here is a secret, it is not necessary to ever work for free. It can be useful however to collaborate and build partnerships with pro bono work.

when and how to work fro free

So how do you know whether a free projects is right for you? I have split up my advice into seperate sections because I have a lot to say on the topic. You can read it all or just find the heading which best suits you. Let me know your thoughts and questions in the comments below.

Only work for people who respect what you do

You may be reading this because you have been approached to do some free labour. If you are on the fence about the project and how to respond my first piece of advice for you is to clarify if your potential client respects you and your work, if they don’t this project could be toxic and stressful.

The way to gauge respect is the determine who the client is, where they found you and how they approached you.

First off who. If your client is a family member read the next segment, they get special privileges. The closer you are to a person the more willing you will be to work with them, if an acquaintance or stranger asks me for a “favour” my gut response is no, (I may be swayed with how they approached me but we will get to that). Also has this person requested free work before, because if they have I again would turn it down. Value yourself and your work, you are not a genie with three magic wishes to hand out, your time is valuable and you don’t want to set a precedent of free labour.

Secondly how did they find you. Was it through your website or word of mouth from another (paying) client. If it was, definitely take time to at least hear them out. This person may be someone you can build a business relationship with, who will come back later a paid job. You also don’t want to break the chain of recommendation if it can be helped; word of mouth is key to growing your business.

If they found you through a friend of a friend who got this free thing done and wants you to do the same thing, or just randomly message you on social media, be wary. These clients often do not respect your work or see you as a real person. They will be frustrating and demanding (in most cases). Unless they have an accountable back story or a project you are desperate to do, steer clear.

Most importantly, how were you approached. Interactions along the lines of ‘hey I need a favour..’ ‘so here’s the thing’ or ‘I have a great opportunity for you … exposure…’ are warning bells. There is no genuine interest in what you do, your specific work or a real benefit for your business in these instances. They are just in it for a quick free job and will probably just keep bugging you and others until someone says yes because they don’t value your craft. Be firm and say no to these.

The next category I like to label ‘so I have this idea…’. These are the people I hear out, some are again scamming you but others are genuine and truly passionate about their projects. A good version of this conversation is when you aren’t even asked to be involved until the last second. You may even feel that you can help out before they suggest it, this is when you know it is a project to go for. I recently helped my friend film and edit a video campaign, he admitted he had this project and he did not have the skills to complete (showing he valued what I did and could offer), he then laid it all out and I found it interesting enough to ask him how he was going to achieve it. Then he asked me what my rate was for work, admitted he didn’t have a huge budget but was willing to discuss with me a deal if I would help out. Again he showed value in my work, and I wanted to grow my portfolio of that set skill so I offered my free service for this one time off event and it worked great. Because my friend knew the value of my craft he asked my advice, followed my lead and worked collaboratively. This is the ideal client, someone who doesn’t mess with things they don’t understand.

The third category is the person who never mentions price. In this instance I find a way to slip in a ball point figure for the work. Then they will respond in three ways:

  1. Can’t you just do it for free? (Run, their will be no respect in this relationship).

  2. Ok, I don’t honk I can afford that, maybe I can come back to it or can you teach me how (here I would negotiate, or if the project suits me do it for free. My client now has an understanding of the value of the work and the client relationship will be more successful because of this).

  3. Oh, that’s ok, I am happy to pay (here you have turned a pro bono customer into a paying client, do everything you can to make this experience positive for them and build your client relations).

Working for family

Family members often ask for a freebie, most don’t even comprehend what you do. I have had an auntie ask me if I just draw pretty pictures all day and then ask if I can draw a picture of her dog (I sell pet portraits here by the way 😉). These types of requests, which are quick and simple I tend to just do no question, family is family after all.

However When it comes to family projects that are time consuming or complex I give myself a simple rule. Never do a project related to business for a family member 100% for free. If it is for a professional project charge a small fee or a percentage of your normal hourly rate. Your family loves you, but their relationship with you is so ingrained they won’t even notice if they take advantage of you and monopolise your time.

The saying family comes first also is a burden, family often expects their projects to be priority, even when it costs you billable hours, so putting a small price on the project alleviates the pressure to get it done super fast and move on.

I often have done work for my dad and brothers, building them assets and proposals and illustrating stories for their comic books. Setting professional boundaries on these projects made the process go smoothly and kept our relationship strong without bickering and fights.

Your time can also be a gift. I built a website for my brothers for their combined 40th and 38th birthday presents, and because I was a proud sister who wanted to support their work. Giving my work and time as a meaningful gift gave a perceived value to my work and allowed me to do something meaningful for my siblings.

Do not spend more than your time

You may have found that free client who respects what you do, but what is it going to cost you. If it is going to cost you more than you time, talk about these costs before proceeding. It may simply be the price of paper and paint, so maybe you can absorb the cost or ask for a coffee or a return favour to balance the cost. However if the project has other costs like printing, web hosting, expensive materials etc. the client should pay. You are giving your skills, not paying to run their business, it isn’t your project after all it is theirs. If the client refuses to front the costs, then this project is not for you.

Also if your equipment is damaged in the process of the project i.e. a broken camera, destroyed supplies, you should also make your client aware that this is their responsibility. I almost had a friend topple my tripod holding my camera and a thousand thoughts ran through my head at once, mainly, how can I afford to replace it and not ruin the friendship, so yeah, always best to talk about these things beforehand.

If you are gifting your time you are your own boss

An important thing to remember if you are doing free labour is that your mental health and time still matters. If you are not being paid your client should have no sway over the time line of the project or be putting extreme pressure on you. you make the rules.

Your time is important, life gets busy and you have to be aware of that mystic work life balance. DOn’t take on more than you can handle, or feel pressured to do a sleepless night to get that favour done for a friend. Free work should be a relaxing experience. If it is too stressful, most the time, it just isn’t worth doing. Look at your schedule and figure out the realistic expectation you have for when you are going to work on this project and get it done, tell the client this information and let the decide if they want to continue the project within your guides.

Some clients feel entitled even when the are being gifted your time and skills. Most of these clients should be eliminated through the respect testing (above), because if they don’t respect your work they definitely won’t respect you. There are the rare few that are just anxious and rushed people who just want everything done yesterday no matter how challenging or skill heavy they know the work is. My advice is, if the project is something you really want to do; sit down with the client, talk it out, and take control the project. You can do this subtly but be firm in your needs. Make sure you protect your mental space and don’t let yourself be abused or pressured to do or make things you don’t want to.

Always make a contract

Even when no money is involved I like to make a contract to protect your rights. You would be surprised how often a simple project can turn into a nightmare and sour a relationship. An all too common example; you are building an asset for personal use and it ends up on t-shirts or products for sale. You would be entitled to all those profits, and without a contact would have difficulty accessing what is rightfully yours. Don’t be misused, build a contract outlining the work, the time constraints and the restrictions and have it signed before you get started, don’t suffer for being a ‘nice guy’.

Take an opportunity to learn

I do not believe in working for exposure. If a company is big enough to actually give me a decent level of exposure that will change my business significantly, they can afford to pay me for my work (or as they often do, run a competition with a substantial prize to get the work they want). I do however believe in working for experience or to learn something.

When you do a project which you are not practiced in you learn two things, the skill and the business of the project. Working for free can help you developed your professional practice and how you handle clients in this specific project scenario; examples being, your first website design, first logo concepts, videography and editing, basically any unique skill projects which have their own definitive category or niche. You will learn how many concepts you should deliver, how much to involve the client in a WIP, what to deliver and how to deliver it. You will also learn if you actually want to even do this work professionally/consistently.

The other obvious perk is learning and practicing your skills in real world scenarios. It is great if you can design a logo in a vacuum but if you have never worked with client feedback, you will struggle doing it professionally. Everything is bright and rosy when no one give you feedback.

A little disclaimer: if you are learning or do not feel like you have the optimal skills for the project you have been asked to do, please let your client know before hand. It can be a frustrating experience to work with someone who doesn't know what they are doing, same as it can be stressful for you if your client has expectations which you cannot meet. Everything should always be above board and it is better to be honest, projects normally turn out even better if you are, and the stress of the situation is greatly depleted, giving you a chance to learn and your client some free goodies.

A quick way to decide

If you are still on the fence, answering the below questions may help you make the decision. If At least three of the answers are yes, then this project could benefit you and your business and you should consider doing it.

  1. Are you passionate about the project?

  2. Is it for a good cause?

  3. Do you want to build a relationship with this client?

  4. Is this project only costing you time?

  5. Do you have time to pursue pro bono work?