When Should I Work For Free?


Over the past 10 years I’ve ‘worked for free’ on a number of occasions:

Social enterprise: together with a colleague, I recently helped set up and promote a series of acoustic music cafes as an ‘experiment’. They’re linked to an internet radio show so there’s some innovation involved. We agreed to work on zero budget, so we had to do all the ground work ourselves. All the musicians involved gave their services for free (over 15 of them) and a graphic designer helped out as well. Assuming it’s viable, the aim is to set up a self-sustaining community-based enterprise that helps emerging artists in this genre, both musically and business-wise. We’re still in the exploratory phase for this one.

Volunteering: I’m a volunteer for a local conservation charity and I setup and run the blog (which has done really well). I’ve done similar work for commercial organisations and got paid for it (of course) although the work for the charity is naturally done for free. The benefit is giving something back to the local community which is good on it’s own terms but you do have to be clear about boundaries and commitments.

Business development: when previously working for a large company, after we’d developed some novel offerings in knowledge management (that evolved in-house), we wanted to test them out on other organisations. So we did some work for free (to SMEs and a charity) as ‘starter’ projects to develop credibility and widen our experience. This was certainly cat-and-mouse – they wanted us to do more (as it was free) and we wanted to do less – so negotiating (and keeping to) a happy midpoint was an important early step.

This issue of  ‘when or whether you should work for free’ can crop up quite easily and has various pros and cons to it. In particular, it’s a fairly staple question for many freelancers, especially when starting up.

Anyway, if you’re in this situation, this fun site may help you decide – Should I Work For Free?

After I’d written this I noticed that Seth Godin has just written a post on the same topic, which ends via:

Here’s the heart of it: if you’re busy doing free work because it’s a good way to hide from the difficult job of getting paid for your work, stop. When you confuse busy for productive, you’re sabotaging your ability to do important work in the future. On the other hand, if you’re turning down free gigs because the exposure frightens you, the same is true… you’re ducking behind the need to get paid as a way to hide your art.

Picture credit: here.

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