How do you stop clients from expecting free work without jeopardizing your relationship?
“It will be good exposure.”
“It’s going to be an excellent addition to your portfolio.”
“It’ll only take a few minutes of your time.”
“We’re a startup.”
“There’s a lot of future work.”
If you’re a freelancer or small business owner, chances are at some point or another, you’ve encountered prospective clients that have used some (or all!) of the above reasoning to try to get you to work at a reduced rate—or, in many cases, to work entirely for free.
But here’s the thing. Exposure, portfolio additions, and future work? They just don’t pay the bills. And if you want to build a sustainable business, you need to be making money—not using your valuable skills and knowledge to work for free.
That being said, not every client that asks you to work for free has bad intentions. And there may even be circumstances where it makes sense to work without pay. As such, when responding to these kinds of requests, it’s essential to respond in a way that doesn’t burn bridges with potential customers—and leaves the door open for better (paying!) work.
But how, exactly, do you do that?
Indeed, unless it’s a nonprofit you care about or a friend you owe a favor, there’s no reason you should ever work for free. At best, it drags you away from paying clients. At worst, it devalues your work and makes your business seem less legitimate.
After all, you’re a professional, and your time is money, and you should always charge for your work. And performing your work for free can make it seem less legitimate.
Table of Contents
When to Consider Working for Free—and When to Run in the Other Direction
Most of the time, when someone asks you to work for free, it’s a big red flag telling you to run (no, sprint!) in the other direction.
But most of the time isn’t all of the time. There are certain occasions when offering your work for free might make sense.
So what, exactly, are those occasions? There are 2 primary situations where you might consider working for free—starting with if the work in question is for a close friend or family member.
Working for a Friend or Family Member
Now, let’s be crystal clear: Just because someone is a friend or family member does not mean you are obligated to work with or for them without compensation. But if you want to help out a friend or family member, that could be a situation where working for free makes sense. For example, let’s say you’re a freelance writer—and your best friend asks you to write the website copy for their new business. If you want to help but don’t want to take money from your bestie, agree to take it on as a free project. You can then let them take you out to brunch (with mimosas, of course) as a thank you.
When deciding whether you want to work for free for a friend or family member, consider how close of a friend or family member that person is. For example, let’s say you’re a professional organizer. If your mom asks for help organizing her closets, that’s a situation where it totally makes sense to work for free. But if your second cousin—the cousin you haven’t seen or spoken to in over 20 years—asks for tips on reorganizing their pantry? Tell them you’d be happy to hop on a call and offer suggestions—for your standard hourly rate.
Working for a Charity or Nonprofit Organization
The other situation where it can make sense to work for free? When you’re doing pro bono work for a charity or nonprofit organization.
Charities and nonprofits do amazing work for their communities and the world at large—but they often have to do that work on a shoestring budget. If there is a cause you’re passionate about, volunteering your free time and skills to a nonprofit can be a great way to support that cause. Let’s say you’re a freelance photographer—and there’s nothing you love more in the world than your rescue pup. You might volunteer to shoot pet portraits for a local pet rescue to help the animals find forever homes.
If you decide to do nonprofit or charity work for free, set some boundaries. Volunteering your time and expertise to a cause you care about is a fantastic thing to do—but you don’t want to spend so much time and energy working for free if it hinders your ability to focus on paying work.
In Any Other Situation, Say No to Unpaid Work
As mentioned, there are 2 scenarios where you might consider working for free. But there are many, many more scenarios where your answer to the question “can you do this work for free?” should be a firm no, including:
- Any work for a business. Any legitimate business should pay you for your work. Period. And that means payment in actual money—not in exposure or other non-monetary incentives. (Again, exposure doesn’t pay the bills!)
- The promise of future work. Some potential clients will ask you to work for free by promising that they’ll send you plenty of paid work in the future. But if clients don’t want to pay you today, they won’t want to pay you tomorrow. And if they know they can get you to work for free, it impacts your perceived value. Once they know they can get unpaid labor, they will never be incentivized to offer a paid opportunity.
- Friends of friends. As mentioned, if you decide it feels good to offer unpaid work to your closest friends, go for it. But if those friends tell their friends you did the job for free, those “friends of friends” might come knocking at your door expecting the same. Don’t fall into this trap; unless you’re extremely close to someone (i.e., best friend or immediate family member), always make sure they pay up.
- Third-party nonprofit work. Again, doing unpaid work for a nonprofit or charity can be a worthwhile, fulfilling experience. But that’s if you work for a nonprofit or charity directly. If you’re working for a third party (like a marketing agency representing the nonprofit), chances are that third party is getting paid—and you should be too.
The Hidden Trick: Constant Revisions and Scope Creep
In many of the above scenarios, the ask is clear. The client is asking you to work for no pay—and so the response (“absolutely not”) is also clear.
But sometimes, being asked to provide free labor isn’t as cut and dry. When it comes to working for free, there’s a trick clients may hide up their sleeves, whether they mean to or not. And that trick?
Constant revisions and scope creep.
While most projects will require some level of revision and refining, some established clients will go above and beyond with constant revision requests:
- “Could you make 1 tweak to this image?”
- “Could you add this line of code?”
- “We’d like to include this section in the copy; could you add it?”
- “Could you upload the document to WordPress? It’ll only take a few minutes?”
- “Could you source an image for us?”
No matter how many revisions you provide, the client keeps changing their mind and asking for more. They push you so far beyond the agreed-upon project scope that the project barely resembles what you were hired for. Not to mention, you’ve spent an insane amount of time doing extra work with no extra money to show for it.
And over time, the client starts to see that extra work as the norm—and starts expecting it with every project they hire you for.
If a client does this on purpose, it’s not a client you want to work with. But sometimes, clients genuinely don’t realize that they’re putting you in a position where you’re working for free. And for those clients, it might be worth trying to reform their behavior before “firing” them.
So, how do you stop clients from expecting free work without jeopardizing your relationship with them? Let’s have a look.
1. Prime Them Not to Expect Freebies
There’s nothing wrong with giving your client the odd freebie, whether that’s an extra round of revisions or hopping on a call to discuss their revision requests. But it becomes problematic if you give them too many—without telling them that you usually charge for them. You’ve set a precedent, often without realizing it, that the client begins to expect.
Next time clients ask for a minor revision that you usually charge for, be clear that this is not covered in the work estimate. Mention how much it usually costs and give them the resources to do it themselves—this way, they feel like they have a choice in the matter.
Acknowledge that you haven’t minded providing the odd extra value-add in the past but that you can no longer sustain this and that you’ll charge for it in the future.
Any reasonable client will understand this. If they don’t, ask yourself: Are they worth it?
2. Re-Enforce the “New” Rules in Upcoming Interactions
Initially, your client may not take you seriously—mainly if they’ve gotten used to you doing extra work without extra compensation.
So, it’s important to reinforce the action you took in later interactions and future projects. Hold your boundaries and refuse to do any extra work unless you’re compensated for that work at your standard rate. If you show weakness, you’ll end up where you started.
3. Be as Detailed as Possible With Your Estimates
The clearer, more detailed, and more accurate the expectations are at the start of the project, the easier it is to avoid scope creep. When you and your client are on the same page about what’s included in the project (and what’s not), they won’t expect you to make any additional revisions, changes, or requests for free.
So how, exactly, do you set those clear, detailed, and accurate expectations at the start of the project?
By providing a detailed project estimate.
Project estimates are documents that you create before the onset of a project. A good estimate provides a breakdown of the following:
Outline all services you offer that are relevant to the project. If you’re a content agency, you might provide a host of content-related services—like blog posts, landing page copy, website copy, and lead magnets. Your project estimate should only include the services you will be providing the client (i.e., if you’re only going to be providing blog posts for a client, that’s the only item you’d include in your estimate—while if you’re providing more comprehensive content marketing work, you’d want to list out all of your services that are relevant to the project).
Your project estimate should also clearly outline the scope of the project. This includes:
- Estimated start and end date
- Number of deliverables (e.g., 4 blog posts)
- Details for the deliverables (e.g., 1,000 words per blog post)
- Revisions allowed (e.g., 2 rounds of revisions)
- Allowable scope of revisions
- Length of time to complete revisions
Now, it’s important to note that revisions are part of any project. You’re trying to deliver what the client wants within the confines of the project—and that’s totally acceptable.
The key is to be crystal clear about what a revision is; otherwise, your client may complain when you charge for something they thought was part of the project—but is actually extra work.
For example, let’s say a client hired you to write a blog post about how to market your business on Facebook. Once you finish the blog post, acceptable revisions might include a round of copy edits or adding additional content to strengthen the existing points. But if the client reads the blog post and comes back and says, “Actually, I changed my mind. I want to cover how to market your business on Instagram.” That’s not a revision—that’s a new project—and you want to clarify that distinction to your client.
Beyond defining a revision, make sure you distinguish between minor and major changes.
Minor changes may include an internal link to another blog post on the client’s blog. Major changes may be changing the direction of the blog post. If the client requests a significant change, it’s not a freebie, and you should charge for it.
Finally, you also want to be clear on the number of revisions. Otherwise, the client will think they can request as many as they want.
Here’s an example of a revision from InfinVision: “Once a design draft is presented, the client has a specified number of days to provide their feedback. Once all their comments, ideas, and questions are consolidated, and we provide a new version, that’s the end of that round of revision.”
Specify any exclusions—and make sure you don’t hide them in the fine print.
Specify the costs for all services—including your rate for any additional work or revision requests.
Get a Signature
Sending the estimate isn’t enough. You need to make sure they read, understand, and sign it. After you send the estimate, offer to hop on a quick call to discuss the main points. Once they sign the estimate, keep a record. You’ll want to have it on hand in case of any disputes over project scope or charges later in the process.
A Word of Caution: Don’t Nickel and Dime a Good Relationship
Getting paid fairly for your work is critical to running a sustainable business. But so is providing the highest level of service to your customers, particularly your most loyal or highest-paying customers. As such, it’s essential to know when offering free work might be in your best interest—and when not to nickel and dime your way out of a good business relationship.
For example, let’s say you have a longstanding client providing steady, engaging, and high-paying work. In general, they’re super easy to work with—but on 1 project, they come back with 1 additional revision request than is outlined on your project estimate.
Can you charge an additional fee for that single revision request? Sure. But maintaining the working relationship with the client—and showing that you’re occasionally willing to go above and beyond to get things done—could be worth more than the one-off fee you’d make charging for the revision. However, if they start making those additional revision requests a habit? Let them know they’re outside of the project scope—and start charging them appropriately.
Don’t Let Scope Creep Make You Work for Free
There are times when you might want to work for free, like volunteering for a nonprofit or helping out a friend or family member. And there are times when you should absolutely not work for free, like for a startup that promises exposure or experience.
But unpaid work due to scope creep can be a bit more challenging to navigate. Thankfully, by setting clear expectations—and upholding your professional boundaries—you can keep scope creep to a minimum and ensure that the client work you’re doing is client work you’re getting paid for.
Have you ever had to deal with a non-paying client? Do you have clients who expect you to work for free? How do you deal with it and get the fair compensation you deserve?
This post was updated in March 2023.