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When Should You Work for Free?

by Hanna Brooks Olsen
money & life

Photo via Flickr.

Photo via Flickr.

No, seriously. Should you work for free?

When you’re a creative person, clients, employers, and friends or family members will doubtlessly, at some point, come out of the woodwork to ask for your services. And most often, they will be asking you for your services without the mention of compensation. And while the motivation for requesting free work is hotly debated (is it because they think your work isn’t worth money, or because they think you owe them? Do they genuinely not understand how much your work is worth, or do they not have the resources to pay for your content?), the debate about whether or not there’s a time and a place to work for free is even greater.

“One weird thing about being a professional writer is that a lot of people seem to think your job is fake,” wrote Lindy West for Jezebel, who noted that, because she is a writer, people often assume that asking her to write something for their own purposes is no problem — and is more like a small favor. But it’s not just writers who get solicited in that way — photographers, designers, marketing consultants, and even lawyers and doctors get asked for free services or industry information all the time.

And sometimes, they give it up; huge websites like the Huffington Post and Buzzfeed owe their growth in large part to the free content contributed up by their users and readers, who willingly submit their work with no expectation of compensation in hopes of finding new (read: paying) audiences. And sometimes that pays off, as increased name recognition really does drive traffic back and awareness.

“I run a magazine, and we always need more help,” Lifehacker’s Sarah Gilbert explains of one situation where it was advantageous to utilize free work, in an instance where a volunteer put ‘I would love to have an editorial position on my resume’ on their resume. “While the volunteers are bountiful,” Sarah says, “[the volunteer’s] experience is in other fields; we’re not going to split hairs, and we happily offered up a title that gave both the gravitas she required and also filled the functional hole we needed filled.”

But sometimes it doesn’t pan out, hence the old adage, “artist dies of exposure.” For every photographer who started out doing free portraits and headshots on the side and then opened a successful studio with tons of clients, there are many more who have sunk money into equipment and gas to go on location, only to get a firm handshake in return.

Working for money can also change the way we think about ourselves, but for good and for bad. Getting paid for your work can make you feel more confident, as you see direct benefit and gratitude from your clients in the form of real dollars. It also changes the way you see your worth. According to an article by Christian Jarrett at 99u, getting paid — and especially getting paid an hourly rate, as many of us are, skews the way we think about the value of time.

“Researchers have also shown that thinking about how much you earn on an hourly basis can change the way you feel about time,” writes Christian, “Sanford DeVoe and Julian House specifically showed that people prompted to think about their hourly wage were less able to enjoy downtime, such as listening to music. After all, when you make $10 an hour, two hours of music listening will ‘cost’ you $20.”

Which doesn’t render money unimportant — you can’t pay your rent with your concepts of temporal value — it simply gives workers a reminder that time is, as we know, money. And it can make a three-hour “free” project feel like even more of a wash, as we consider the $60 we could have had in our pockets if we’d been paid for it.

But like most things, free work is a judgement call, and something you, as a creative, may have to decide on a case-by-case basis.

Design darling and typeface wonder Jessica Hische made a fairly famous website dedicated just to the question, which laid out scenarios when working for free is encouraged, discouraged, and your own personal call. For example, Jessica wrote, you can probably spare the half hour to make a garage sale flyer for your own mother, whereas large companies who can afford to pay for work “often ask their employees about friends hungry for work and use the friend connection to take advantage,” which nets them free work and the friends of their employees maybe one portfolio piece, at best.

There’s also some consideration when it comes to hobbies or labors of love. Charging for work may hinder or change the creative process, and if you’re really green, your work may genuinely not improve if you’re not in it for the love of the art. If photography is your side project, but not your job, involving money may add new challenged that were unanticipated, and free work might be the best route as you hone your skills and decide if it’s really something you want to do full time.

“Treasure your passion projects and think twice before introducing money into the mix,” Christian writes, because “once money is involved, it’s nearly impossible to go back.”

Would you ever work for free? Is there a time and a place? Take our poll! We want to know:


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Hanna Brooks Olsen

Hanna Brooks Olsen is a writer and editor for CreativeLive, longtime reporter, and the co-founder of Seattlish. Follow her on Twitter at @mshannabrooks or go to her website for more stuff.