Working for Free, Part 2: The Maybes

In part 1 last week I discussed the different ways people might approach you for free work and why in 99% of cases you should turn it down. Today I'm going to look at the few cases when you might consider agreeing to work for free and how to make sure you come away with a positive experience.

The key thing to remember here is that it must be your personal choice. Never allow anyone to bully or guilt-trip you into doing free work for them. Working with abusive clients is bad enough when you're getting paid so why put up with it for nothing? Consider the pros and cons carefully and only agree to free labour if you are sure it will be a positive experience for you.

1. 'It's for Family'

What is the job and who is it for? Is it a quick flyer design for your mum or a whole children's book for your uncle Ed? Relationships and time constraints are your main concerns here. If it's an immediate family member asking then you may decide that you want to do them a favour, but if you start creating free work for extended family then you could find yourself stuck in a continuing cycle of referrals to more distant relatives and friends. If you've agreed to do a small amount of free work for uncle Ed then how do you say no to your cousin, or your second cousin once removed? Decide what you'd be willing to do and for whom and don't cross that line!

The second consideration is time. How big is this job? Will it take you two hours or two weeks? The odd quick flyer here and there may not seem like too big of a deal but if you commit to a larger project, such as the mammoth job of illustrating a children's book, then you are almost certainly taking time away from the pursuit or execution of paid work. If your family respect you as a professional then they should understand if and why you have to turn them down. Maybe you could come to an arrangement for discounted work or an exchange of labour for small jobs?


2. 'It's for a Friend'

The same rules apply here. Is this a friend you see occasionally in the pub, or did they donate you a kidney? Find out exactly what they want you to do and decide if it's a project you would enjoy working on, then roughly calculate the hours it will require and see if it can fit around your other commitments. If your friend is low on funds, maybe you could do an exchange of favours to make the deal less one sided? They could cook you dinner one night as a thank you a or do a little job for you in exchange. Though it's great to do nice things for your friends once in a while, you have to find that line again here. When it's possible that a lot of your freelance work is going to come from personal networking, friends of friends, friends of clients etc, you have to decide when to start charging or you will constantly be expected to work for free.


3. 'It's for a Charity'

As I mentioned in part 1, major charities should have a budget for this kind of thing. They will be paying all their permanent staff and other types of freelancers so they should be offering to pay you too. However you may personally choose to make an exception for smaller, local charities that don't have the budget for promotional materials etcetera. In this case again you should first consider whether you will enjoy the project, how it fits in around your other work and whether this is an organisation whose work you care about and want to support.

If you do choose do to do some free work for a charity or a similar client, have a contract in place.

It may seem strange to write up contracts for unpaid work but contracts are not just about agreeing to payment, they are there to ensure that neither party abuses the other. Setting up a contract allows you to stipulate how much work you are going to produce, the number of revisions and the established time frame. This makes sure that both you and the client know exactly what to expect from the partnership, reducing the chances that you will feel harassed or taken advantage of as a volunteer worker. Setting up a contract for a finite amount of free work also allows you to break off the relationship without feeling guilty for no longer contributing and without the expectation from the client of continuous free labour.


4. 'It's for a Competition'

Competitions are something else that should be considered carefully before committing. Check the small print, weigh up the usual price for work against the prize money and decide if this is something that you would enjoy working on, or that you would really like to have as an example in your portfolio. We all know that our odds of winning against the many other entrants of a competition mean that illustration competitions are equivalent to unpaid spec work. Therefore if you do decide to enter competitions you need to know that this is an exercise that will benefit you even if you don't happen to win. Some of the reasons that entering a competition might be worthwhile include:

  • You like the sound of the brief and you would really enjoy doing this in your spare time rather than working on a personal project, or even as the starting point of a new personal project.

  • You are a student and work done for an external brief would be useful for your portfolio development and/or admissible as part of a course module.

  • The prize compensation is equal or greater than the money you would charge for the work as a commission, and you came up with a good idea almost immediately that you would like to explore.

  • You really want this format of work for your portfolio and prefer working to external briefs rather than setting your own for portfolio projects. (In this case, in fact in all cases, you should still make sure that the compensation is reasonable.)

Try not to force yourself into working to a competition brief. As with any other form of free work, it is not worth working on a competition entry unless it will have personal value to you. Putting pressure on yourself to shoe-horn your work into a competition brief is highly unlikely to produce your best work and therefore, if the brief doesn't feel right, you are probably better off working on a personal project you are passionate about which will bring more life and personality to your portfolio.


So whenever you are asked to work for free, make sure that you consider the big three; Time, Money and Value to you and always remember that you yourself have value as a professional creative:

It's not just your work and your time the client is paying for, it's your experience, training, and expertise as a professional.

It doesn't matter if this is your first job or your 100th job, you are running a freelance business and clients are asking you for work because you posses skills and training they don't. So consider offers carefully and be transparent about your labour costs, but overall remember that you have value and trust that clients should always be willing to pay for quality work.


If you missed part 1 last week, you can check it out HERE.