It can sometimes be an excellent idea to work for free. But you should never work for nothing.
What’s the difference? Well, “free” generally just means “not for money.” But there are tons and tons of valuable things you can get in exchange for your efforts that aren’t money.
One of the first rules you should adhere to is this: When working for free, you set the terms. Don’t let someone tell you that designing their website for them pro bono would be “an honor” or “great exposure.” There are plenty of great reasons to work for free, but unless you’re specifically doing it as charity for someone who needs it, you should be aiming to get something for your free work.
What are some of the things you can get in exchange?
- Barter. Sometimes you have a service you can provide, and the person or organization who wants that service has something you need directly. Instead of charging each other your standard rates, you can each get a little discount by trading.
- A head start. If you’re trying to compete with others for a permanent role, especially early in your career (or early in a new vocation) where you don’t have a large established body of work, it can really put you at the front of the pack to provide a sample of what you can do. Exchanging a little free work for the best shot at a great gig can be an awesome trade.
- Reputation/”street cred.” Even later in your career, you can get a lot of benefit out of doing free work by making sure you’re getting the proper accolades. Letters of recommendation, great reviews, even official titles can all open new doors. Make sure you’re actually getting all of that!
- Connections. Doing free work as a way of getting face time with people that can make a big difference in your life can be the sort of exchange that pays huge dividends. If a person or organization is really a big deal in the sphere you want to work in, it can absolutely be worth it.
- Experience. The classic “I can’t get this job without experience, but I can’t get the experience without a job” is totally untrue. There are TONS of ways to get experience without having a job first. This is one of those ways. I’ve met people who have been echoing that same lament for 2 years, but balk at the idea of doing a month’s worth of work for free to get their foot in the door.
There’s a ton of stuff you can get for your work that isn’t money – at least, isn’t money directly. All of those things are steps on the road to greater income from your work. There are intangible things too, like just satisfaction or enjoyment, but those are their own rewards. If you like painting fences for the sake of it, then you don’t need my advice.
Be careful when doing free work, though. First, like I said, make sure you’re setting the terms. Going out an volunteering your work for free is actually one of the best ways to avoid being taken advantage of; if someone seeks you out, they might just be trying to get one over on you – and if you’re good enough for them to seek you, you’re also good enough for them to pay you. But if you’re hitting the proverbial pavement actively looking to give your work away in exchange for one of those things above, you’re more likely to find a great opportunity. People love moxie.
Don’t ever let anyone – including you! – treat your work as less valuable just because you aren’t charging money for it. Respect the contract no matter what the terms are. If someone promises you a title, or a service, or anything else – collect on that as surely as if you were chasing a dollar.
One last thing – if you really want to gain the maximum benefit of doing free work, you have to really lean into it. You can’t do it begrudgingly. You have to be eager to provide value, show off the confidence in what you can offer, and demonstrate that you aren’t being pushed around – you’re setting the terms. It can be a difficult hill to defend sometimes, but the people that do it well get a huge advantage from it.