How to Work for Free

work for free

Should you ever work for free?


Well … Except sometimes for nonprofits. And your friends. And when you’re just starting out. And when you’re building your portfolio. So maybe you should work for free a little, right?

If you’re even considering working for free, you’re probably in a creative profession — writing, filmmaking, fashion, live performance. It’s rare that anyone asks a dental hygienist or a bartender to work for free.

Let’s get more specific: I believe in contracts. I believe in quantifying everything. I believe that if someone wants you to work for free, you can take charge of the situation and turn it into cash (or something else of value). At the very least, you should know how to say no with your dignity intact and the power dynamic favorable to you.

Behold: a five-step strategy for how to make more than the cash value of your work when working for “free,” what to ask for instead of money, and how to turn a nonpaying gig into a paying one.

Exposure Isn’t Always Bankable

Ever heard this one? “Compensation in exposure only.”

If you are working for free for something so ultra cool that big corporations will do anything for a piece of it, then maybe that statement is true. Like the person who follows around famed street artist Banksy and takes photos of his graffiti — it is sometimes possible to do something bleeding-edge awesome for free, and then sell yourself to corporations for $3,000 a day. You do some work for a celebrity and then use that to sell something to suburbanites hungry for some small connection to glamour? Maybe.

In this hypothetical case of following around Banksy, you’re not working entirely for free. You’re building up coolness and later trading the coolness to less-cool people in exchange for money. I call it coolness arbitrage. (The definition of “coolness” clearly varies from milieu to milieu — and substitute “prestige” for “coolness,” if that makes more sense in your line of work.)

But if you are working for a normal, boring company — an entity already less cool/prestigious than yourself — for free, why would some other company think you’re worth real money? You can’t trade cool for cash, because you didn’t trade your work for cool.

Maybe the company you’re doing the free work for suggested they might pay you later. This is unlikely (unless you get it in writing). How are you going to negotiate your rate when the person you’re negotiating with knows your last gig paid zero?

Nonprofits Don’t Get a Free Pass

This might seem counterintuitive. After all, don’t nonprofits “deserve” work for free, while for-profits don’t?

Sure, many good causes are worth supporting. But there are plenty of nonprofits out there that just aren’t my top issues. Donating your services to a nonprofit you aren’t passionate about isn’t any different from just giving them your rent money.

As many wise people have said, if a nonprofit is paying the caterer — or the agency that contacted you — they have it in their budget to pay you too.

Furthermore, free work for nonprofits usually looks like free work. If you made a website for your local ASPCA, I can look at that website, decide that it’s nice and that you’re a nice person, and then hire you. And I can also tell that you sometimes work for free.

And when I say nonprofit, I mean a real, registered nonprofit. Not a band or a club. Little League teams and such are even more obvious. Plenty of nonprofits do pay for slick marketing because it helps them get donations — a Cub Scout troop does not.

Finally, nonprofits, no matter how much they like your work, are not likely to hire you at the end. So, work for a nonprofit for free if it’s a cause you would donate money to. Don’t do it just to build your career.

Assume the Person Wants to Barter

If someone asks you to work for free and you have other sources of income and really want to work with them, try asking, “Sure, I’m open to negotiating arrangements. What can you offer?”

Don’t ask to negotiate — assume. Graciously give the person the benefit of the doubt that of course they intended some reciprocal benefit. It’s so nice of you to save the person from the huge social blunder of looking like they’re trying to exploit you.

Give examples to get them thinking in the right direction. “For instance, last year I performed with my string quartet at the Junior League’s holiday gala (value $400), and the club lent me its space to use for a course I teach on the weekends. This saved me about $400 over six weeks, so it worked out great for everyone.”

If you’re working with a media organization, consider asking for ad space, which can be valuable if you have something to sell (so make something to sell: ebooks, products, online classes, a membership site, a live event).

If you’re negotiating with an arts organization, ask for free tickets. Request a big block of tickets you can use to bring a group and impress potential clients and get good content for your social media presence. Have your business listed as a sponsor, since you’re kind enough to accept this compensation instead of cash. Now you look like the big player in this arrangement.

Even if it’s a random, boring small business, you might get surprising offers, like “as an insurance firm, we cannot offer free insurance, but my spouse is a massage therapist and would be willing to provide a 10-pack of massages.” I have been offered Qigong in exchange for SAT tutoring. You never know. If you get offered the cash value of your work in wedding cakes, you can always say no.

If you do get an offer and you want to negotiate, keep in mind that you should get more than the cash value of your work, since you’re accepting in-kind compensation (payment where no money is involved). As in, “A fair amount would be either $1,500 in advertising value or $1,000 in cash. I’m open to either.”

One bonus to this technique is that the person who asked you to work for free really looks like an ass if they respond, “Yeah, we can’t really offer you anything.”

Quantify the Exposure

Working for exposure is indeed possible! It’s just that these arrangements are almost never negotiated fairly (or negotiated at all), and almost never quantified.

Exposure is quantifiable. People sell exposure every day. It’s called advertising. It is sold per click, per pageview, per minute, per quarter-page. Advertising is one of the most quantifiable things there is.

If you are asked to work for “exposure,” ask for numbers so you can quantify the “exposure.” Then get it in writing.

For example:

Thanks for the offer. I might be interested in an in-kind trade of services for exposure. Here is one way that could work:

I see that you have about 6,500 Twitter followers. I estimate that a project like the one you’re proposing would take about four weeks. During that time, I’d like two tweets per week linking to my Twitter account and business page, to be tweeted during peak hours of 8-10 a.m. and 6-8 p.m.

Of course, a LinkedIn testimonial (the written kind, not the “click to endorse” kind) from yourself or the founder is an easy thing.

Exposure on your blog may also be of value to me, such as via a dedicated post. Can you provide analytics for the blog? For instance, what are average pageviews per post? Would you be able to put me in touch with the person who writes the blog for further discussion?

I’m also interested in other ideas you have for presenting MyAgency as a partner — I see that you work with many other companies in my target market. Perhaps we could co-host a lunch-and-learn at your company that would bring these people in to hear from us both.

If they hedge, tell them you just want to quantify and get their offer of “exposure” in writing, so you can determine its cash value to your business and make sure the agreement is fair on all sides. If they can’t specify exactly what the “exposure” will consist of, then it doesn’t exist.

If they offered you “exposure” and then balk at a specific written agreement about the exposure to be provided, pass.

Have a Clear Start and End Point

Do not go into a pro bono arrangement intended to last indefinitely. At the very least, write in the contract that “both parties will reevaluate in three months, with option to renew.”

But we can do better than that.

You’re not getting a paycheck, so don’t think of yourself as an employee. Think of yourself as a business owner. The client who’s getting something for free is hardly your most valuable client. You want to get an in-kind value from them, and then either move on or onboard them to a paid level of service.

To do this, you need to be in control. Don’t “work for free” — instead, enroll certain companies in your “pro bono program,” which you are in charge of.

At the beginning, say:

I do have a pro bono program, actually, where I provide this service to one pro bono client per quarter. In exchange, I use the client’s before-and-after images and case study on my website and in my social media, and the client provides targeted exposure via their own Web, email list and social media presences. We can work out the details if this sounds like what you’re looking for. Pro bono engagements last about eight weeks.

Get the agreement in writing. Do the work. Get your testimonials, publish your data, bask in the dedicated emails and blog posts you’ve negotiated for. When the pro-bono program is coming to an end, don’t just sit and wait to be “chosen” for a paying gig.

Take control. Offer the client the same service you’ve been providing, at a specific rate. Make it easy for them to sign up. The power of inertia — staying with a current service provider — is strong. Here is a sample script:

Dear Marina,

Our eight-week campaign has come to a close! It has been a pleasure working with you.

I am working on the writeup of our campaign that is going on my website. Here are some stats you might be interested in:

  • Pageviews went up 120% in the first month and remained constant thereafter.
  • More than 400 new subscribers signed up for the newsletter, a rate of approximately 133 per month, up from the previous rate of approximately 30 per month.
  • 12 weekly newsletters went out, and more than 4,000 people opened each one.

There is also some qualitative data — for instance, feedback received on Twitter regarding the new logo — that is overwhelmingly positive and will be included in the report.

I hope that you’ll be able to continue these measures internally if you wish to do so, and that our efforts together will bring your business continued success.

If you want to continue working with me, I have three monthly retainer packages available, and information about them [here] on my website. What I’ve done for you over the last three months is identical to the second option (the Pro package at $500/month — there are also Standard and Premium options).

Again, it’s been a pleasure.

Thank you,


Note that this keeps the balance of power in the right place. It’s hard to imagine that anyone would respond to this with, “Will you keep working for free?” It is perfectly likely that you’ll get, “I wish we could afford to keep you on!” — which is fantastically more respectful.

If someone does suggest that you keep working for free, don’t say, “I have to pay my rent” or “I really can’t work for free.” It doesn’t have to be about you insisting that your work is worth something. That is not dignified. It’s none of anyone’s business what your rent costs or what the very minimum you need to stay alive is. Keep control of the conversation.

Instead, you can say something like, “Unfortunately, a client can’t go through my pro bono program more than once — you’ve graduated!”

Whether the gig becomes a paying one or not, the balance of power is correct here, and you don’t damage your credibility as a professional — who charges accordingly.

Jennifer Dziura runs GetBullish and the annual Bullish Conference.

This piece originally appeared on DailyWorth in January of 2015.