By April 22, 2014 Read More →

Are you ever asked to work for free?

Work for free

Would you work for free?

Is it ever justified?

What would your response be?

If you work in a professional capacity as, say an accountant, lawyer or consultant, you may never have been asked to work for free.

There still seems to be a general understanding that those kind of services are valuable, take time and investment to acquire, and must be paid for.

But now that anyone can design their own website, blog their opinions, and take and publish their own photos, anything we might call ‘creative’ has apparently been devalued.

So if you are a writer, illustrator, musician, designer etc you may well have been asked to provide your services without payment. (Or for payment in kind. I read recently that models are increasingly being offered clothes instead of payment for taking part in catwalk shows).

Often the person making the request will tell you that to be asked to contribute in this way is an opportunity and good publicity – your name will be seen, you will get valuable ‘exposure’, people might even be moved to buy your work.

Screenwriter Harlan Ellison doesn’t mince his words when talking about being asked to give Warner Brothers his work for free in this short, hardhitting clip Pay the Writer.

And I love fashion historian Amber Butchart’s Twitter reply to the exposure argument – ‘People die of exposure. It doesn’t pay the mortgage’.

I follow bestselling author Joanne Harris on Twitter and so hear about the occasions when literary festival organisers ask her and her high profile writer friends to take part without payment.

Or ask them to supply free books to give to the attendees, whom they are charging handsomely for tickets. (Unlike the general public, festival organisers are well aware that authors are only given a handful of free copies on publication and have to buy the rest).

Harris has written a thought-provoking post How much is a writer really worth? on her Tumblr blog, which could apply to any creative work.

If you do receive a request to work for free, be very clear on what you will get out of it. It might put you in front of your target market, make you visible with and to other experts, or share your expertise on a wider basis than before, perhaps with people who can’t afford to pay for it.

Think how much it is costing you. Not only the time to do the work and the financial cost incurred in travel, accommodation, supplying materials or work, but also the opportunity cost. How else could you use that time instead, and what could you earn from it in every sense?

And if you are a writer, make sure you are registered with both ALCS (The Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society) and PLR (Public Lending Right). ALCS collects money due to authors for secondary uses of their work, such as photocopying, digital reproduction and educational recording. PLR distributes payment to authors for the loans of their books by public libraries.

With an average annual income of £5000 for professional authors, these payments are very welcome to writers and are a way of making sure you don’t inadvertently work for free.

Have you ever been asked to work for nothing?
What was your response?

work from home secrets

Lots of people replied on Twitter to tell us what they do when asked to work for free, including the author of a book on the subject!

Check out More on working for free for ideas and resources, including advice for musicians.

Posted in: Making money

10 Comments on "Are you ever asked to work for free?"

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  1. Kay Heald says:

    Rarely do people ask me directly to ‘work’ for free, but I have plenty of ‘can I just have a bit of quick advice’ – I genuinely like to help people and their businesses, but there are an unfortunate few who seem to ‘take’ more than they ‘give’ and ‘a bit’ can easily turn into ‘way too much’!

    • I think a lot depends on how well you know the person asking. And whether they offer to share some of their expertise in exchange. In the past I spent a lot of time finding resources for complete strangers who emailed me with questions, and never even got a thank you. So now I’ve put what I hope is a friendly little line on my Contact page saying I’m sure readers understand I can’t answer individual questions. But obviously I’m only too pleased to talk home working in all its permutations with those who bother to interact with me!

  2. I’ve seen this discussed quite frequently on a writers mailing list I’m on, although I’ve not done any commercial writing myself for some time so haven’t suffered directly. I do get the ‘quick bit of advice’ problem though. It seems to be an occupational hazard for anyone working in IT, and if you publish your phone number (as you tend to on a business website) you open yourself up to anyone ringing up to pick your brains (not just family and friends) with the carrot of potential work. You have to decide at what point to draw the line, which can be difficult when you have a reputation to consider.

    There’s another side to free work though, the sort to volunteer for and then find it absorbs more and more of your time. I can’t say I resent any of what I do though and would recommend any of the activities I do as being very rewarding, perhaps just not all together!

    Schools are always on the lookout for governors (I’m involved with two schools) and there’s the STEM Ambassador programme that I’ve become involved with through Code Club. My involvment with a sailing association and the BDMLR (as a marine mammal medic) I tend to class as hobby, and getting involved with my local FSB branch is, of course, work related. See, you can justify anything if you try 😉

    • I occasionally get that kind of call too, Paul, and am happy to spend a few minutes sharing my knowledge and referring people to other resources. But I do seethe inside if it’s the kind of enquiry that could have been perfectly well answered on Google!
      Deciding to help out schools, clubs or charities by sharing your expertise is, as you say, quite different. You are obviously very good at time management!

  3. Andrew says:

    As an app developer I’ve been asked to work for shares in a startup, which is effectively the same thing as free. The problem is compounded by the fact that everyone thinks they’ve got a great original idea for an app. But ultimately the value is in the execution and not in the idea.

    I’m happy to offer a “quick bit of advice”, which is normally “is my idea for an app actually possible?”. It may not directly result in winning work, but can help to establish network reputation.

    • That’s the balance, isn’t it? Being helpful but not exploited! And at least with shares you might get a big payback somewhere down the line, when one of those startups becomes a household name 🙂

  4. jefff says:

    when you first start your own business you have to work for free to get things off the ground,in this case you are not getting exploited but you are trying to make it yourself enough said

  5. Sarah Cruickshank says:

    I have been asked to write for nothing before and sometimes I do write for free, but it really does depend on what my gut tells me. Some people are upfront and tell you they don’t pay, but other people just don’t say anything until you ask them and then bleat “Oh it’s a labour of love on my part so I couldn’t pay you”. I that case I opt out.

    Choosing to share your knowledge or experience is one thing, but people assuming that you’re going to to happy just handing over something is a bit rich.

    There’s also a limit to the amount of help I’m willing to give someone for free too. A quick pick of my brains or bit of advice is fine, but once people start wanting me to give them step by step instructions I gently ask them to make an appointment and tell them what my fees are.

    • Sounds like you’ve got a good grasp of the working for free thing, Sarah. Just because someone is willing to work for nothing on a particular project doesn’t mean others are too. We all have different causes we want to support, and different reasons for doing so.

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