Working for Free, part 1: When to Say No!

This one is a real struggle when you're a new graduate and sometimes even if you've been working in a creative field for a few years. When you are just starting out in the freelancing world it can be easy to be seduced by the promise of 'exposure' or work that will be 'great for your portfolio'. However in 99% of cases I would recommend that you resist any temptation to work for no immediate compensation. In next weeks post I'm going to talk about the 1% of cases where you might want to work for free and how to handle them, but today I'm going to address the myriad reasons someone might ask you to work for free and explain why I think you should say no!

1. 'It will be fun' and 'it will look great in your portfolio!'

Among non-artists there seems to be a common, pervasive belief that since you must have decided to be a creative freelancer because 'you enjoy it' you should be happy to have creative work, regardless of compensation. However, whether you enjoy your business or not, it is still a business and a business (and you as as a person) need to make money to survive.

If you are going to be doing creative work because it's 'fun', wouldn't it make more sense to be working on your own projects that you are personally passionate about or that specifically target gaps in your portfolio that you want to fill?

In the time you might have spent working on somebody else's idea of a 'fun' project you could create a whole series of work for your portfolio that demonstrates your personality, enthusiasm and unique style in a way that may not always shine through in commissioned projects. This work could be a great starting point for your own exhibition or a range of illustrated products you can sell independently, or it might just turn out to be the one project in your portfolio that really catches the attention of paying clients.

2. 'It will be great exposure!'

No it won't! It really won't. If a client isn't requesting work for a company large enough to have a budget to hire freelancers, the likelihood that they have a large audience for your work is extremely low. Add this to the likelihood that that audience consists of people just dying to hire an illustrator with your particular style for the appropriate compensation and I'd say the chances of this magical 'exposure' getting you any new work is very low. If I ever find myself considering this kind of work, I just remind myself “you can't eat exposure!” Free work usually only creates more free work.

3. 'I can't afford to pay you right now but I'll give you a percentage of future sales!'

How much? 10%? If this is someone who just decided to set up their own t-shirt business or is self-publishing their first book, the answer to this is still usually 'no thanks'! Unless this customer has previous business success and a great marketing plan it's very unlikely that you will ever see much money out of this kind of project. There is no guarantee that they will sell anything and even if they sell a hundred, your designated percentage probably means you will never hit minimum wage for the hours you've spent working on this project. Don't be fooled by promises of future riches! If a small company or independent freelancer offers you this kind of work for free, it means that their 'business plan' doesn't include researching freelance rates and calculating design costs into their budget! Is this the kind of business that is going to become a roaring success and make you a decent wage in royalties in the future?

4. 'The next job will be paid!'

Your first question to yourself in this situation should be 'if they can afford to pay me for my work next time, why can't they pay me this time?' Your next question should be 'what guarantee do I have that they will hire me for a second (paid) commission?' I've heard the odd isolated story of a creative freelancer getting well paid future work this way but personally I would advise against it. It's still free work and even if you get paid for a second job, you might as well be working for half your usual wage as you've just put in a bunch of free hours on the first job. You should probably assess this one on a personal case-by-case basis depending on the client and on whether they will give you a signed contract as guarantee of the second commission. Consider the pros and cons carefully!

5. 'It's a competition!'

Not everyone sees competitions as working for free and I do sometimes enter competitions myself. However, I recommend you put a bit of thought into it and be very picky about which ones you enter. I'll go into more detail about when it might be worth entering competitions in my follow-up post, but for now I'm going to explain why I don't think they're always a good idea.

Firstly you need to check the small print. Read the details of what kind and how much work the competition is asking you to produce, look at the prize money on offer and compare that to the rates you would usually charge for this kind of work if it were being offered by a paying client. If the two amounts don't match up then it isn't worth entering: this competition isn't an opportunity, it's a company using the guise of a competition to underpay working artists!

Secondly, consider your odds. How many people are entering? There's no way of knowing, but you do know that only one of you is going to get paid! If the work the competition is asking for isn't work that you would choose to do for fun anyway, you are essentially producing work you don't enjoy, for free, with only a small chance that you might get paid for it in the future.

6. 'It's for a charity!'

The answer should still usually be no! You might think I sound like a selfish miser for saying so, but it's true. Successful charities like Oxfam and Cancer Research pay their higher level office and shop management staff a living wage. They also have a budget for advertising, commissioning freelancers and printing promotional materials. Large charities like these are essentially functioning high-profile businesses and as such can afford to pay you. If it's a small local charity run entirely by volunteers then you may want to chip in as a friendly gesture if you have the time, but large-scale creative commissions for charities should still be considered paying jobs.

Value yourself and your work!

Every time a freelancer agrees to work for promises of exposure they are reinforcing the message that you don't have to pay for creative work; that it is a hobby and not a profession. This is damaging to the freelance industry as a whole because it encourages businesses to continue to ask for free work or to offer less money for jobs. If someone asks you for free work, you can always respond by explaining the going rates in a friendly manner and offer to discuss their project with them to come up with an arrangement that benefits both of you. If they say no, you lose nothing, but if you can come to an agreement then you have a paying job!

You wouldn't phone up a plumber and say 'hello there. My tap is leaking. I can't pay you right now but if you come over and fix it, it will be great exposure. I'll tell all my friends about you and you can write about the job on your website.' So why should we, as creative freelance professionals, be expected to work for free for those reasons?


Next week: When you might work for free and how to do it.