When Should You Work For Free?
Free work, sometimes called pro bono work, is when you do a piece of work for free for a client.
You put in the effort, help them get a result and get paid nothing.
Not a cent or a dime.
So when should you do it?
If you’ve been following what I write about for any length of time, you might be surprised by my answer.
You see, I’m an advocate of premium prices, charging your worth and packaging your services and deliver a better outcome for higher fees, most people would probably say that I would never suggest that you should work for free.
Actually, I think there are three situations when it makes complete sense to work for free.
1. When You Are Just Starting Out
It makes sense to have some pro bono clients, when you’re starting out in a new field. You want to road-test your materials and process, and you also want to check that the consumer insights that drove your offering actually ring true.
A bit over two and a half years ago, I used this exact strategy to get started, and it was the very strategy that gave me the momentum to continue and go on to build a multi-six figure business with paying clients shortly after.
But before you rush out and blindly offer your expertise to all and sundry, let me share with you some rules and guidelines that helped me.
- Know why you are offering your services for free. In my case, it was two-fold. I wanted to i) make sure that the service I offered would get results – almost like a Beta Testing Group – I could try out my materials in this field, and sensecheck if my materials were actually as good as I hoped; and, ii) get good testimonials.
- Batch your free work and make it timebound. I put a call out on a site where journalists ask for stories and sources, and made it very clear that I wanted to be able to write up some case studies. For the people who answered my call, I would give one month of pro bono business coaching, and they would give me their revenue for the three months prior as well as the current month. I wanted to do it all at once, and be done in 4 weeks or so.
- Be clear with boundaries and expectations. I had way more than a few dozen people respond, I set up calls with about ten people, and then ended up working with seven. Someone dropped out early on, and asked if I could move their free spot to six months time as they’d be back from their travels then (the answer was no). Someone else asked if I could keep helping them for free for another few months (the answer was no).
- Actively learn from your pro bono work. I reviewed every call trying to find out what worked and what could be improved. I discovered which clients I helped most.
- Don’t expect your pro bono clients to move to paid clients. If people have experienced your help for free, it is unlikely that they will become premium clients. It is likely that they were motivated to work with you because of the “free” price tag. This isn’t to say that they will never work with you again (and some did), but don’t expect this to fill your pipeline immediately.
2. When You Are Looking To Actively Extend Your Network
From time to time, you might decide that you’d like to extend your network and reach new prospects that you wouldn’t otherwise have access to.
If you have a good picture of who is your ideal client, then you can start to look around you and you can find out who they are and where they “hang” outside of work.
Make a list of the people or companies that you’d like to develop a relationship with and ultimately work with.
Look them up on LinkedIn and find out what they are involved with outside of work. The higher people are in an organisation or industry, the more likely they are to want to give back.
You might find that a couple of your ideal clients are on the board of a charitable venture, and that a couple more are running the local kids sports team (for example!).
You might decide to join the board of the charitable venture, or at least contribute on a project basis. This will give you visibility and, if you do a good job, credibility. Do be careful of your time, so ventures have a way of taking more than you want to give!
3. When You Are Already Making Good Money
The final time to do pro bono work is when you are ready to give back. This is often a good deal later than many consultants, coaches and other experts think it is.
You need to fit the oxygen mask to yourself before you start to help somebody else with theirs. And there’s no benefit in trying to run yourself ragged – you won’t help yourself or them properly.
I hope this helps with some guidance on when is the right time to do some pro bono work or work for free. It’s natural to want to help people who don’t have resources. But the reality is that without skin in the game, they won’t take your advice seriously, and you’ll waste a lot of time.
All my best,
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