To answer the question “should you work for free?” the answers are “no”, “maybe” and “it depends on a couple of factors.” You may have heard the term “freelance isn’t free.” Just because money is not exchanged doesn’t mean there wasn’t an associated cost.

Sometimes that cost is time spent or energy used that could’ve been better placed elsewhere. There is always a cost for everything. However, there are a few times where working for free makes sense. If there is the opportunity to support a cause you believe in or the opportunity to build a relationship that will lead to future paying work then these are the cases you may consider working for free.

Feeling undervalued

I’m not sure about you but I’ve worked with clients and for whatever reason they were unable to pay me. I remember the feeling of getting really upset because I delivered on my end of the agreement, however, the client didn’t deliver on payment. I was upset because I was expecting money but I was also upset because I felt the client didn’t value what I did enough to pay me for my services. They should’ve found some way to pay me regardless of the circumstances and the fact that they didn’t showed me they didn’t value my work or care enough.

Those same feelings can arise when you work for free. If you don’t set a protocol or specific rules for “free clients”, the clients may be inadvertently pulling your emotional strings without even knowing it. It’s hard to repair that type of damage in hopes of future collaborations when that happens.

Auction mentality

Have you ever seen an auction before? An auctioneer informs the audience about a particular product and the audience bids on how much they think it’s worth. Sometimes the value is low and sometimes that is very high, but the audience determines what the price is not the creator. Don’t fall into this type of mentality. Do not allow others to ask for free work because they will not understand the true value attached to your work. You need to take control and determine if you’re going to do work at the full price or do the work for free. (Shout out to seanwes, they do a great job of capturing the pros and cons to full price or free)

Don’t train others to treat you like an auction.

When working with a “free client” observe these principles and use them as a guide:

Agree to your process

If you do agree to work for free they have to be willing to agree to your process. This means that you treat them like they are a client who is paying full price and they submit to all processes you have in place. This includes meetings, any assignments or advice you give them they complete in a timely manner so you can complete your work. Deadlines are set in place and there is a limit on the amount of revisions you provide.

Ultimately at the beginning of the process if you are going to work for free you must set the standard for everything that is going to happen as well as getting them to agree on the final deliverables and no more than what has been agreed on.

There must be a genuine benefit for you

I’ve met with potential clients in the past and they’ve asked me to work for free. The thing is there has to be a genuine benefit for me. For example, if Nike asked me to help them on a campaign I believe they should pay full price (I bought their items full price for years) but if I want to do the work for free I can see how adding Nike to my portfolio of clients would be beneficial.

Taking it a step further if you are working for free require the client to participate in helping you craft a case study. This means you’ll be adding the finish work to your portfolio and the client to speak to how you helped them solve a legitimate business problem with a testimony. This is a key benefit for you because a good case study can lead to someone else booking you in the future.

Still give them an invoice

As a part of your process give the client an invoice for the full price. However, zero out that full price. If the work is worth $5,000 state that on the invoice and then subtract $5,000 making the final price of the invoice zero. At the least this allows the client to see that you’re taking the project seriously but also allows them to understand this is not free and the value is not left to interpretation.

Following up on giving them an invoice this also means you need to fill out a contract as well. As I mentioned you want to make sure to treat the same as a client paying full price. Make sure there is a contract in place that discusses what you are delivering and the scope of the project.

Pro Bono Work

I’ve seen many creatives trying to build their whole portfolio on free clients. As I mentioned there are certain places specifically created for pro bono work and still get the amount exposure in credit you deserve. An example of one of these places is called Catch A Fire.

A nonprofit or charity may approach you to do some type of pro bono work but you cannot write off pro bono work on your taxes. If you provide your services to a nonprofit organization and the service provided is worth $15,000 then you can’t write cost $15,000 as an expense, donation or loss for your business. This is all the more reason to set parameters in which it is best for free work.

The Project Must Interest You

If it just so happens you meet a potential client and you know the project would be perfect for you at your full rate but the potential client cannot afford the full price then find a way to pull back on some of the benefits you’re offering so that you could still work with them in a smaller capacity. I don’t recommend discounting because if you discount your full service offering the client I will never understand how much it truly worth.

Should You Discount?

If a logo from a major designer is worth $10,000 but I get them to discount the price to $3,000 guess how much the logo is worth? Not $10,000 but $3,000 because that’s how much I paid for it. It’s for that very reason I do not recommend discounting because your training people to treat you like an auction in which they can negotiate.

The only exception which discounting may be appropriate is if you are working to build a relationship with a client who has already invested a full price amount to you in the past. In other words, you have a relationship and they haven’t tried to get discounts off of you in the past and they truly understand your value so now when you offer a discount or free work it’s a courtesy because you have their loyalty.

So again “should you work for free?” I don’t recommend it but if in those few cases that you choose to work for free make sure that it’s on your terms and not someone else’s.

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