By Georgina Laidlaw

Five Reasons Why You Shouldn’t Do That Job Free

By Georgina Laidlaw

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?

  • Great points!
    One through four are pretty relevant but number five is the real clincher. In my experience, free work is always undervalued by people who don’t understand what it takes to accomplish it.

    I’ve always been of the mind that if you feel the need to improve your portfolio, find a worthy charity or non profit and offer your services.

  • Wolf_22

    Georgina, you could not have posted this at a better time because this will help me with my own mental stability…

    While the specifics will differ, the general issue is the same from which we both touch on: I’m currently volunteering for a non-profit organization who needed a website (and yes, this was the total scope defined–nothing else). My quick response to the SOS was to set up a customized WordPress installation to provide for your basic CMS needs–and it’s been a horrible experience. Absolutely horrible…

    The moments straight out from the gates were *okay* as everyone had yet to get to know each other and construct expectations but as time progressed, the members of this group began to become belligerently demanding and build up ignorant and rude expectations as if compensation were being given somehow. It’s especially frustrating when the people whom you volunteer for begin to become slightly disrespectful toward your craft when they avoid using something as easy to use as WordPress under the guise of either “technological intimidation” or the old excuse of “I have other priorities”–which they never do because I know of their responsibilities… In other words, they have WordPress at their disposal but still keep sending me multiple e-mails throughout the day expecting me to place it all on the website. They never ask questions about how to use anything and they never even consider me whenever something is being discussed during meetings. It’s been a complete and utterly miserable experience (and it’s a good thing I’m ending it in a couple days).

    As far as I’m concerned, absolutely no free business should EVER be provided–even for friends–and ALWAYS charge what you believe you’re worth! Family might be different… But no other exceptions!

    This will definitely be the last time I ever give any handouts.

  • Also, non-paying “clients” tend to ask MORE than normal clients. When you don’t pay, you often don’t realize the value of what you’re asking for or the effort involved.
    I think that free work should only be for:
    1. your own projects;
    2. non-profits which really don’t have the resources to pay AND which you’re really supportive of (mostly local associations, especially ones you’re active in).
    But even working for that second category might get you in trouble in some way for some of the aforementioned reasons, so be careful.
    Also, if you’re a designer and you need a good folio piece, do fake projects. Ever seen the Craiglist redesign at craigslist.thebignoob.com? Or the plane boarding tickets designs that many designers have been dabbling with? Set some goals, write a clear brief, and start designing. If you end up with something you’re proud of, publish your design and your initial brief in your portfolio, with clear mentions that’s it’s not client work (and, if it’s a redesign or new spin on an existing website or brand, be very clear that it was not done at the demand of the site’s or brand’s owner, and was not endorsed by them).
    Fake projects might seem to be a waste of time, as a non-profit or a friend could have benefited from your “free” time, but you’ll avoid having a “free” client asking for too much, fighting with a friend, and may end up with a better design to show off.
    For web developers, having a pet project that’s both both challenging and useful to people goes a long way to show off your skills.

  • Really excellent points Georgina. I made the mistake of doing free jobs several times to try and build a portfolio and it can end up in tears of frustration. As Awasson says one major problem is the work is completely undervalued.

    Having said all that : ) I have just completed a job for free this week that took a bit of time, but I took it because it was an industry that I would like to get more work in and a project I had a genuine interest in. I explained that it would take me longer than normal to do it because I had to prioritize the stuff that pays the mortgage before the free stuff.

    It was graphic design work which I generally find has a definite end unlike web design where the client hears about new things they want for their site on a daily basis and it can drag on endlessly if you don’t put the foot down.

    I think the general rule of thumb is don’t do work for free, UNLESS it is a project you really want to work on for your own reasons.

    • Anonymous

      If there is a cause you must support for free, use a contract. List the parameters, specs, time lines, expectations, and exit strategy the same as you would with a paying customer.

      But, if you give it away for free, no matter what they said the night before, they won’t respects you in the morning, they’ll never take you home to meet the folks, and they’ll tell all of their friends how easy you were.

  • It’s like the Wal-mart customers.. the less they pay the harder they are to please…

  • Roberto

    Great analysis. But I would add a few things, though:
    1- a non-paid job has to be better executed than a paid job. Exactly because it is intended to lead to a second phase (the paid one). And this sucks. When you give stuff away for free has to be the best
    2 – all the same statements you suggest, should be applied to UNDERPAID JOBS too. Because these are the ones we are exposed mostly in the real world.
    3 – a free (or underpaid) job HAS TO BE fast to execute. Or it will come out bad, or you will start to hate the customer. Simple thing, fast to do, little hassles, then it can be done, otherwise it is a lose-lose situation …

    All this from personal experience, I’ve given my share already …

  • McAaron

    Number 5 is the worst of them all. Working for free is hard enough but when the website never get’s out there on the web it turns out that the project was just a waste of everybodies time and effort, especially the web developer. NEVER work for free unless they have the text for the site first, if the person has the text for the website ready it shows that they have some initiative and are willing to actually put some effort into the site and get it hosted.

  • georgina

    Hey everyone, thanks for the interesting discussion! It seems we’re all on roughly the same page when it comes to doing work free, but the tips you’ve added here are invaluable :) Nice!

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