Should I ever work for free?
When I’m asked this, I tend to answer, “Absolutely not! Except in these two cases…” And as an example, right at the end, I’ll share my experience of when I worked for free, with a surprisingly good outcome.
This might be surprising that there is even one case, let alone two, that would benefit a woman providing her labour for free. And especially coming from One Extra Zero given how strident I can be about women charging what they’re worth. Free has to be the ultimate under-charging and over-delivering.
I really don’t like it when women under-charge and over-deliver.
But coming back to the main question of whether you should work for free. You might get asked to do this more often than you would imagine. And it doesn’t ever go away. Even last November, I was asked to do a day’s facilitation for a not-for-profit group for a fraction of a dollar above free. This organisation even had more than 6-figures in the bank, they just didn’t want to spend it! I did not do this work. It wasn’t strategically aligned with the board, it would have taken about a week to do it properly (not just a day). The president wasn’t on board, and there was almost no guarantee of follow on work.
When you are working on your own, with no-one to reach out to, you can always think of reasons why you should work for free and just as many reasons why you shouldn’t.
Your mind can spin round and round trying to justify the arguments for each side. Eventually, you might end up giving in and just doing the job for free because it’s easier than dealing with the cognitive load of trying to sort this out in the absence of strong internal strategic guidelines.
However, I’ve got strong views on why you shouldn’t work for free, with the exception of these two scenarios that I’ll detail toward the end.
Why You Shouldn’t Work For Free
There are several reasons why the answer to this question is “Absolutely Not!”
They say you’ll grow your business – unlikely
You’ve probably been asked to do something for a worthy association or group, and the reason they’ve given for not paying you is that you’ll be able to raise your profile. In fact, the argument often continues, by doing this job for free, you’ll have a raised profile, and in fact, you’ll make a lot money because other people will then hire you and they will be willing to pay you money.
Raising your profile is a worthy endeavour, but it only translates into new paid work infrequently. You definitely shouldn’t bank on it.
It can pay-off if you have a highly visible piece of work, for example, if you are the caterer. People get to ‘taste’ and experience your offering. But even then, you want the person requesting this ‘free’ work to cover the costs.
Free work is generally invisible
For the majority of services such as consulting or coaching, free work is invisible. If you’ve helped to get the CRM implemented, or given executive coaching to the chair of the board, or even helped the group complete their annual tax returns, nobody sees or experiences the good work you’ve done. Even if they stand up and proclaim your virtues and your qualities (as well as your willingness to donate your unpaid time), nobody is able to see the before and after very easily. This means it will be more difficult for you to charge a premium to others.
It should be part of your strategic plan – not ad hoc
The very fact that you are asking this means that you have questions around your own worth. You should have very clear boundaries about when you do and when you don’t work for free. When you have to weigh every request up on its merits, and decide every situation on a case by case basis, it means you don’t have a strategy in place.
The scope can expand – and now you have to do more for nothing
When you work for free, the scope is likely to change and become bigger. This means that you’ll end up doing twice as much work for exactly the same amount of income – none!
This is because the person requesting the job has thought of some work that needs to be done. Given that it’s probably not a priority for them, they haven’t thought it through properly. Let’s say it’s a bit of marketing collateral. You’ve reluctantly agreed to do the work, taking one for the team and all that. They’ve come back and said, “Ah well, we also realised that we need x, y and z done. Can you just do that as well?” You are now doubly resentful that you are taking one for the other team as well. It’s just no good. And it’s not what you should be doing.
There is an opportunity cost
Finally, there is an opportunity cost to any free work. Any time, effort or focus you devote to this free work is taking you away from paid work. This is time that you could be spending building relationships with paying clients, in prospecting conversations, writing a proposal for new clients, or even talking to a past client about doing a new project.
When you consider the loss of income, this ‘free’ work starts to look like it will cost you a lot.
It’s difficult to reset price expectations
If you think this could be an ongoing client, don’t do the work for free. If there is any chance of finding opportunities with this client beyond this one job, you want to establish a price position in your client’s mind. Changing the price expectations of a current client is so very much harder than setting the price expectations of a new client. If they think you are a ‘free girl’, they won’t want to change their perceptions of you to ‘premium girl’.
This is the same for discounting. Hard to go from “cheapest girl in town” to “top shelf”. If you discount without provocation, you should read my article “Should I Offer A Discount?“
It’s just not very polite to ask someone to undervalue their time
The person asking you to do the work for free is probably, dare I say it, just a cheapskate. Maybe they have a troublesome relationship with money, and they are used to working for free themselves. You don’t have to be like them.
They might know that they work they are asking you do is worth something, and they’re just trying to avoid paying what they should pay. These douchebags should just pay you properly.
When CAN I work for free then?
There are only two circumstances where, in my humble experience, it’s ok to work for free.
- When it is a genuine component of a ‘giving back’ strategy. This means that you are intentional about who it is that you do pro bono work for. It’s likely that you have approached them, and offered your services for free, or at a discounted rate. You know how much you want to do, what the scope of the work is (you’ve even helped to define it), and you’ve made it timebound.
- When you have a specific reason for testing out a new service or offer, and even then, it’s really only sometimes.
I’ll share my experience of working for free. Back in 2013, I was fresh into starting One Extra Zero, with no clients. My efforts at networking felt weak. Actually, it didn’t just feel weak, it was weak.
I was good at the first pitch, and then, people would say, “So, what type of people do you work with?” I obviously gave a loosey goosey answer, because the next question was, “How many clients do you have?” To which I would squirm and have to say, “I’m just getting started.”
It was my own lack of belief in my credentials that was causing the problem.
To fix that, I came up with a marvellous and cunning plan.
On a journalists’ call out website, I put a call out asking for women business owners who would be willing to supply a case study. I offered four weeks of business coaching in return for a case study. I had 46 responses within three days, spoke to 17 women by phone and got started with twelve. A little over four weeks later, I knew my content and approach worked. I had excellent testimonials on my website. (And I’ve still got the file with learnings fully documented!)
And when I next went out networking, I had great belief in my own credentials, and my website backed it up.
Would I do it again? Not now for this business. I already know I can help women grow their income by focusing their attention, helping them craft and offer more premium packages that deliver greater value and working the well of opportunity.
But if I were advising someone who was just starting out, in a new niche, and they lacked confidence – perhaps. I’d suggest they make it very defined, with clear expectations of what was going into it, and what they should to deliver.
And how to gracefully say no?
There are a couple of specific situations where it might make sense to work for free. But in general, you should never work for free. There are just too many reasons not too.
So the next time someone asks you to work for free, if it doesn’t meet your pre-established criteria, you might gently say, “Thank you so much for thinking of me. It’s really very kind of you. Unfortunately, my company policy only allows me to do so much pro bono work, and I’m sorry to say, that’s all been used up.“
You could also say, “No, I don’t work for free. Ain’t nobody got no time for that.” But it might not go down quite as well 🙂