When Does It Ever Make Sense to Work For Free?

Whether it's for "exposure" or for charitable causes, at some point you'll likely be asked to work for free. Should you do it?

Every small business owner has a story about the time a client, friend, family member, neighbor, local charity, or complete stranger asked them to work for free.

Some professionals shut down the conversation before it really begins; others consider “talent donations” as another way to be charitable. And for those just starting out, providing your services free of charge in exchange for a testimonial or real-life experience can be a great way to get your foot in the door for the next opportunity—especially if it makes for an impressive addition to your portfolio.

No matter how you view it, it’s wise to develop a policy about pro bono work as your business grows. For example, a company might offer you legitimate exposure for creating free content for their social media pages, but what will it cost you to do so?

With this in mind, we consulted 6 members of our successful small business owners panel to get their take on free labor and what works for them. Then, keep reading for 3 conditions where offering free work might actually make good business sense.

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    Feli Oliveros—Copy and Content Writing

    What I Do:

    “I’m a freelance writer who specializes in long-form content for B2B and financial services companies. My areas of expertise include personal finance, small business finance, human resources, and marketing.”

    Do I Work for Free?

    “I’ve provided free work to charities before, and I wouldn’t mind doing it again in the future because I think it’s important to give back to the community if you’re able to. Before working with a non-profit, we discuss expectations like the scope of work and time commitment to make sure it’s a good fit for both of us. After all, not all opportunities are created equal. You don’t want to burn out or stretch yourself too thin at the cost of your paying clients and other obligations.”

    Tim Dolan—Digital Strategy Consulting

    What I Do:

    “Kickframe is a new type of consulting and training firm built to serve the need that organizations have for a specialized digital strategy partner that is independent, agile, and experienced. Kickframe helps organizations become better digital marketers.”

    Do I Work for Free?

    “I regularly work with non-profits at a reduced rate and take on speaking assignments pro bono. If the organization or event aligns with my values and they appreciate my time and contribution (even if they do not pay for it), I generally say yes. I have been lucky—these have been some of the most interesting and rewarding assignments.”

    Andrew & Jess Campbell—Training, Writing, and Project Management

    What We Do:

    “Andrew’s focus is on training and skill development in communications; Jess does project management and freelance writing.”

    Do I Work for Free?

    “Yes, we do quite a bit of it. We’re asked even more. It’s important to set a standard early, but also important to do some, particularly for organizations and causes in your community or ones that are important to you. That’s our bar. Youth organizations and non-profit groups within our community are important to us and do important work—so we want to give back. We also set up a non-profit rate structure for workshops & training. That way, they can still afford to have the best services.”

    Joshua Speers—Graphic Designer

    What I Do:

    “Graphic design, web design, branding, design/marketing consulting.”

    Do I Work for Free?

    “It always depends on the scope of the work, who it’s for, and how much time I can dedicate. I would always set specific standards from the beginning, so the ‘client’ understands the value of your time and doesn’t try to take advantage.”

    Suzanne Colmer—Personal Shopper

    What I Do:

    “We help women and men shop smarter and teach them how to love all of the clothes in their closet.”

    Do I Work for Free?

    “I love what I do, and I don’t mind doing it for free as long as it is going to benefit a cause that I believe in.”

    Paul Russell—Communications and Marketing

    What I Do:

    “I’m a writer and communications consultant specializing in both corporate communications and marketing. I have extensive experience working in the human resources (internal communications) and financial services (external communications) areas.”

    Do I Work for Free?

    “I’ll always help out a good client who needs a favor (which are usually small). But my general rule is that I don’t do pro bono work. I leave my charity/volunteer work for my personal life, and I really like to keep my work life as ‘paid work’. So even for charities and not-for-profits who are clients, I don’t discount my rates. People – even at charities – can and will take advantage of your good nature, and you have to relentlessly protect your ability to make a living because no one else will.”

    3 Conditions When Pro Bono Work Makes Sense

    While it might seem counterintuitive to work for free, there are times when unpaid work could benefit your business, bring in more clients, and help you earn more money.

    You Want To Use Your Skills To Give Back

    Some people volunteer at soup kitchens. Some donate funds to causes that are near to their heart. Another way to give back is by leveraging your professional skills, talent, and experience. Graphic designers, landscapers, writers, lawyers, and other service-based professionals have a lot to offer to many organizations and charities that are desperately short of funds.

    The trick to making sure your charity work doesn’t bleed into your paid world is to be clear about the scope upfront. It’s one thing to design a poster for an event or write a blog post, but if that initial ask turns into redesigning the website and creating a series of brochures, you may wish you never started your volunteer stint. Be specific about what kind of free work you’re available to do and maybe even set limits on the number of hours you can devote to your volunteering.

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    You Want To Go the Extra Mile

    Sometimes it’s a boss move to help out a client at the 11th hour by tossing off some revisions without billing for it – or touching up a project for which you’ve already invoiced. Why? Because if they’re high-quality clients (and humans), they’ll remember your heroic move and throw even more great work your way.

    Of course, some clients will take advantage of your commitment to customer service, so it’s important to have a limit — even if it’s only in your own mind. Giving these clients unlimited access to you will only hurt you in the long run. So, be flexible but firm about what you’re willing to do.

    Your ‘Altruistic’ Act Will Get Noticed

    Sometimes you can kill two birds with one stone by being charitable and drumming up business for yourself. Sponsoring a local sports team, landscaping the backyard of a homeless shelter, or writing a compelling story to appeal for donations to a food bank are all ways service-based professionals can use their skills to do good. Don’t be shy about slapping the name of your business on the work—but do so in a way that doesn’t detract from the charity. The more eyeballs (read: Potential clients) who recognize your talent, the more likely you are to get referral business.

    For the most part, though, you want to be compensated fairly for your efforts. You may decide to work with charities, but your business isn’t one. People pay your rate, not just for the perceived value of your services or the deliverables you provide, but for all of the years it took to learn and hone your skills as well.

    As you build your business, take some time to clarify your thoughts on volunteering your professional services. It’s not for everyone, but be clear about your boundaries if it’s something you want to do.

    This post was updated in November 2021.

    Heather Hudson

    Written by Heather Hudson, Freelance Contributor

    Posted on September 28, 2018