To Free, or Not to Free

During a recent #solopr chat on Twitter, I made the following statement:

Remember: it’s worse to work for free than to not work at all.

While many pros agreed with me, some had serious questions about this advice (below). But aside from new business opportunities (which are unpaid in virtually all cases), working for free can often be a dead-end road. Working “on spec” – which means you get paid only if the client deems you worthy – or with a client you know is probably not going to get around to paying you, diminishes your worth.

For all of us, every time we work for a client we are establishing our value. If you work for free, then the value of your time is $0.

You may think that working for free for someone will put you in their good graces, and you’ll be the person they call first when they have a paid gig. In fact, it may be just the opposite. Similar to Groucho not wanting to be part of a club who would have him as a member, people like working with consultants who are in-demand. Working for zero smells like desperation — and isn’t it human nature to avoid being associated with someone desperate?

The economy is tough – my clients have limited budgets and I want to show I’m flexible
I have fallen into this trap myself over the last year. Though not working for free, I put effort into trying to help one long-term client stretch every dollar (rob Peter to pay Paul, kind of thing). Guess what? Shortly thereafter they decided to spend $20,000 of their marketing budget on something quite silly (wish I could tell you what – you’d be shocked!).

What I learned: organizations can find the money to spend when they want to, so make sure you’re on that list. And don’t over-compromise — it’s not worth it.

What if I want the experience and need items for my portfolio?
If you’re interested in working for free with the aim of gaining additional experience and samples to show, why not work for your favorite non-profit pro bono? Some large charities have marketing committees made up of volunteers — in those cases, you can expand your network while you support a worthy cause.

What about working on new business proposals for an agency?
This can work out well sometimes, but be careful. First and foremost, the agency should have at least one person doing the same amount of work on the proposal as you. Why? Because that makes them have some “skin in the game.” An agency will be far more choosy about the new business opportunities they pursue if they have to expend some resources to get it. You don’t want to be a dedicated worker bee on any and all long-shots that come along — there will be no incentive for them to pass up lost causes.

Also, unless you have it in writing that you’ll get a guaranteed XX number of hours for as long as they have the contract, you can also get cut out of the deal – I’ve heard of this happening to many solos. And make sure you trust, respect and enjoy working with the team on the proposal, since those will be your collaborators long-term.

In a nutshell, I believe it’s much better to spend a day in the park than toiling away on a project that helps your client’s bottom line, but not your own. In this economy, clients will push on occasion, and it’s our job to push back.

Do you agree? Are there any cases where you’ve worked for free and were glad you did? Any horror stories? Let us know in the comments!
  • Kellye — as you know, I'm a fan of being on nonprofit boards, at the table with the kind of people we'd like to work for, as a way of showing how smart we are. In that context, a bit of free work can be very smart. And occasionally, I'll do a little something for a friend (something easy to me but high-value to them.) Otherwise, I agree with you — the day in the park wins every time. No free work unless there's a very clear, very direct, very immediate upside.

  • “What if I want the experience and need items for my portfolio?” That is the situation I face now. When you have a lack in experinece people try to use that to get free service. Working woth a non profit instead is a great idea. No one should be taken advantage of.

  • Hi Kellye,

    I think you said everything when you said “every time we work for a client we are establishing our value. If you work for free, then the value of your time is $0.” In my experience, clients who expect free or want spec work, nickel and dime on price, or otherwise try to get something for little or nothing will never value your work.

    I don't negotiate on price (but I will, of course, negotiate over the scope of work), and I don't work for free. And I didn't when I was starting by business 20 years ago either. For those who say they need experience, find work that fits the experience you have now–and let your good work and reputation build up your business as you go along.

    Best,
    Daria

  • Working for friends can be a positive, but for those considering it — it's a good idea to spell out what you're doing for them in an email. Sadly, I've heard of some friendships being damaged when expectations differ. Nonprofits are definitely a good way to go, and offer an opportunity for us to give back!

  • Absolutely, Sandra – as you say, I think it's even more common for those with less experience to be mistreated/used (because people think they can get away with it). But everyone's time is valuable, so keep fighting the good fight!

  • This is excellent advice, Daria! My experience is the same as yours: the cheapskates will be a pain from start to finish. Your suggestion to “find work that fits the experience you have now” is a great reminder – thanks.

  • Just offering an example of where this could work out: I'm new to solo PR, and I'm doing an in-kind deal with a fellow entrepreneur. I'm doing communications work in exchange for a website and logo (he's in web design.) Works out great for both of us! We get something we want, plus a new portfolio piece.

    It's important to trust someone in a situation like that. I wouldn't be doing it if I thought he would renege on his end (and I'm sure he wouldn't deal with me if he thought I would.)

  • This is a very important point, Jill. A barter agreement means you're getting something in return, so it's not “working for free.” In fact, a well-documented barter arrangement can be an excellent win-win, especially when business is slow for both parties. Thanks for bringing this up!

  • Kate Robins

    Well put, Kellye. Two expressions leap to mind: “You get what you pay for,” and “If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.” Who wants their personal brand name on that? Working without a clear sense of obligation or purpose leaves a very wide space for everything to go terribly wrong. When it falls apart, people will only want to know one thing about the job half-done: who did it?

  • marydemingbarber

    Kellye,

    This reminds me of a saying my mother used to use all too often — why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free. She would use it in reference to relationships more often than not, but it applies here as well. We must value our services ourselves if we expect people to pay us for them.

    Having said that, I also value working po bono for nonprofits clients whose missions I support. I sit on numerous boards and have agreed to provide occasional counsel free of charge. I will not sit on boards so the organization gets my expertise for free but instead help them shape their plan and find consultants who can help them.

    I also really like the concept independents like Heather Whaling employ where nonprofits can apply to be a nonprofit client for a set period of time/project. It's a great way for me to get visibility and the client/cause to secure wonderful counsel. If I ask people to apply and require them to do some strategic thinking ahead of time, I know the end result will meet both our needs.

  • How about working in exchange for breakfast? I did that for someone I met through a networking event who really just needed a bit of communications advice and some pointing the right direction. Some advice and website “content tweaking” suggestions from me in exchange for two breakfasts, and now he's just asked me to work for him on a regular basis as a paid consultant. It's important to keep in mind that there is a difference b/t working for free and helping someone out. If you do the latter, hopefully good will come back to you in return.

  • So true, Kate – if you give someone a little help, your fingerprints are on it. It can reflect poorly on you, even if you're just trying to be kind.

  • Yes, I don't think Mom was talking about PR. 🙂 But it's a great analogy and the same rules apply!

  • Thanks for sharing your experience. I think giving advice (vs. actually doing the work for them) can work well — the challenge in these instances is to set boundaries so that you aren't taken advantage of. I know this balancing act is something all consultants, at every level of experience, struggles with. Glad to hear your approach worked, so you obviously did it right!

  • Donnella

    Thanks for this post – I've been asked to work pro-bono for several companies that are “growing” but don't want to pay for my time and have “potential” I actually decided to turn them down because I also notice those that don't want to pay little or nothing at all tend to be the most high maintenance for your services as well.

  • That is so true, Donnella. Funny how they go hand-in-hand, huh?