In every freelancer’s life, there are times when we’ll happily do a job gratis. Perhaps it’ll make a good folio piece, get our foot in the door of a new industry, or give us the kind of work experience we’d relish.
But there are other times when, although you feel like you probably should do a free job, the idea doesn’t sit well with you. Whether it’s a friend or an organization that wants you to complete work for no financial reward, you may find yourself inclined to take the job in spite of your gut instinct — possibly for the reasons I mentioned above.
Doing a free job is a big undertaking, so if you’re not 100% sure you want to do it, don’t. And if you need convincing, here are five reasons why you shouldn’t do that job for free.
1. You may not be able to give it the time it needs.
Paid work always takes precedence over unpaid projects. So if you’re juggling paid work with an unpaid gig, it can be difficult to prioritize the unpaid job when paying clients need help. In short, it can be hard to commit to unpaid work when others will happily pay.
Over time, the fact that you’re likely to prioritize paid work may well show in your product. The free project’s final outcome may not be as good as you’d hoped — or as good as it might have been if you’d been paid for your work.
2. You could spend the time finding paid projects.
If you don’t have a lot of projects on the go, you can wind up telling yourself that, in lieu of paid work, you should do a free gig since it’ll make a good folio piece.
That may be true, and this factor can be a tough one to weigh up. But if you work out, roughly, the time you’d spend on the free gig, then consider all the other project-hunting tasks you could undertake in that timeframe, you may decide your time is better spent building a paying client base.
3. This project may be bigger than it seems.
In my experience, unpaid work has tended to be less clearly defined than paid work. When they approach you, the non-paying client may not be certain about the boundaries of the work or what they require of you.
Many people who have asked me to help with unpaid projects have turned out to be expecting me to invest time in the initial phases — project definition, scope, and so on, though they never mentioned this in our initial discussions.
I’ve learned from those experiences that when my time doesn’t hold a dollar value for the client, they expect access to much more of it. Unpaid projects can swiftly balloon into time-wasters. And once you’ve gone along with that status quo for a while, it can be a challenge to tell the client that you can’t justify spending any more time on their job.
4. Unpaid projects often eat into your personal time.
This goes for the client as well as for you. If your non-paying client doesn’t have money to invest in their project, they’re unlikely to spend time that they could dedicate to generating income on the project. And you may well feel the same way.
That means that a project for which you’re not getting paid can soon eat into your free time after work hours, on weekends, and during public holidays. Suddenly you realize that you’re sacrificing your precious personal time — the most valuable time of all — to complete a project for no pay!
5. Clients can undervalue the project outcomes.
Clients who don’t pay for project inputs may be less likely to value those inputs. This may mean that, months down the track, you’re still waiting for your hard work to see the light of day, as your client prioritizes other, possibly paying, projects over the one you contributed to.
If you took on the project because it would give you something new and exciting to show off to your clients and associates, this can be extremely frustrating. But, since human beings are generally less likely to value something that comes free of charge than something they’ve paid for, delays in production and release, or poorly executed promotion of the end result, can be more likely to occur on projects you’ve completed for free. And sadly, there’s not often much you can do about it but hope.
Those are five very sound justifications for not taking the next unpaid job that you don’t think you really want to do. Do you have others you can share?