The Kinds of Work We (Should Not) Do for Free


People in the creative fields perennially suffer requests to do for free what they usually do for pay. This phenomenon is not unremarkedupon, and not particularly surprising in an economy where all sorts of labor is put out to bid in a way that encourages workers to undercut one another.

A general rule in our handbook for getting by in the freelance economy should definitely be DON’T WORK FOR FREE. Remember, the whole point of the freelance economy is that it delivers labor to to employers more cheaply because there is an endless supply of strugglers waiting to work for nothing more than the promise of exposure or future paid work.

But are there exceptions to that general rule? Of course there are exceptions. Jessica Hische has created a handy flowchart at the appropriately named to help you through the decision, but based on personal experience, I would posit an even simpler set of rules. First, put aside any work where you are hoping for exposure or future paid work. That’s a fool’s game. All remaining free work will fall into one of two categories:

1. Free work you do because it is fun.
Spoiler: this is actually the only acceptable kind of free work (except doing work for your mom, which is actually sort of the same, because it’s a situation where not doing the work is especially not-fun). The best kind of free work I do is this kind: in my city, all sorts of non-profits throw fundraising events where they need some kind of live entertainment, and sometimes they ask my band to play. Because we all have day jobs and we all love playing music for a crowd, this works nicely for us, and we usually get free drinks.

2. Free work you do because you are worried that it will be done poorly by someone else if you don’t do it.
This is the worst kind of free work I do. The same non-profits for whom I will happily play music also periodically ask me to translate things into Spanish for them. Spanish translation is actually not fun for me. It’s not particularly hard, but it takes time and it’s rarely entertaining. The problem is that if someone needs a Spanish translator, it’s because that person doesn’t speak Spanish. That means she won’t be able to judge the quality of whatever Spanish translation she gets, which raises the distinct possibility of a lousy Spanish translation. LOUSY SPANISH TRANSLATIONS MAKE ME BONKERS. The city buses in Hartford have them. The DMV has them. The ads I see online because Facebook’s algorithm thinks I’m a stay-at-home Chicana mother have them. They are everywhere and they make me cringe. I actually carry around white-out and a marker so as to correct poorly translated signs whenever I can. Thus, I am compelled by compulsive linguistic nitpickiness to do free work that I would rather not do.

Am I missing anything? Is there some other category of free work that is worthwhile or that we should all avoid?


Photo by the author


14 Comments / Post A Comment

Caitlin with a C (#3,578)

Free work you do to help out a friend/family member who is in a tight spot (but that is definitely a one-time thing)?

Nibbler (#5,331)

I will happily edit things for free when it’s only going to take me a few minutes (your artist’s statement or cover letter for example). Anything more than a few pages I expect to be compensated proportionately, but if it’s a friend I’ll accept a bottle of wine, help hanging shelves, etc.

garli (#4,150)

I often work for free or a vastly reduced rate when my friend’s kids (especially daughters) need math tutoring. It’s the most boring thing on the planet but I’m always successful at getting them to turn around their math attitude and performance.

Unless you count the kid who was in jr college and always drunk for our tutoring sessions, but I don’t count him.

I just think anyone/everyone can do math if they figure out how they specifically need to think about it.

thecoffeestain (#1,483)

I would add “free work that is done for the benefit of your resume.”

I’m pursuing volunteer work in my field (event planning) that will help to bolster my resume and make me a more marketable candidate in an otherwise miserable job market. That, I think, should be the/a third rule. Unless that’s inherently covered under the “any work where you are hoping for exposure or future paid work” caveat. If so, then I think those two rules are fine.

chickpeas akimbo (#6,745)

I would add “work done on behalf of an organization whose cause is important to you.” But perhaps that is just volunteering, not working.

@chickpeas akimbo I think the work/volunteering distinction is valid but also, as Carmen notes below, a slippery slope. I’m not sure how to define a bright-line rule there, but let’s try this: if you have any hope of doing the same exact work for the same exact organization in the future, it’s not the kind of volunteering you should do.

chickpeas akimbo (#6,745)

@Josh Michtom@facebook yes, and certainly that slope is more slippery for someone who’s un- or underemployed. I was thinking mostly of work I do outside of my normal 9-5.

@ both thecoffeestain and chickpeas akimbo

As someone who loves volunteering and wants to work in the NFP/NGO sector doing development, this is a slippery slope for me. I actually can’t afford to be a professional volunteer or a free consultant and I want a job. This is a larger issue with the corporatization and ick underbelly of the NFP world, but it is definitely something I come up with a lot, especially with the improved degree I have/how I network on the work I’ve done so far. I don’t mean to be callous, but I have to eat to, which makes it difficult in terms of trying to “work” places I want to actually be employed at and figuring out how to keep giving energy to causes I admire. :\

Lily Rowan (#70)

@Carmen Aiken@facebook Like fundraising development or international development? If fundraising, definitely never work for free. Nonprofits that have any kind of sense invest in fundraising capacity with professional staff. That kind of volunteer is a totally different thing (event committee or whatever), and not respected in the same way.

@Lily Rowan ughh don’t I know it re: fundraising development. I also am right now really into the idea of young boards and wanting to join one while looking for a job and it all starts to feel like too many worlds colliding. Ah, well.

I used to do freelance music and fashion photography that started as a side gig then grew to the point that I thought about pursuing it full time. If you want to meet a group vehemently against doing any free work at all, it’s photographers.

I see their argument, doing free work only contributes to the idea that anybody with an iPhone is a photographer (thanks Chicago Sun Times). But the reality is the only ones I hear making the no-free-work argument are the old school photographers who got their gigs over a decade ago and are now so entrenched they don’t want to let anyone in.

It’s a struggle though since nowadays I get requests to shoot and they won’t even provide a byline or “Photo by…” credit. Since it’s so easy to steal a photo and retweet it, everyone’s already devalued photography to $0.

Personally I’m still conflicted. I didn’t need the money since I had a day job so I could afford to work for free in exchange for access to a private event or free tickets or to add a big artist to my portfolio. But I’ve also increasingly felt like I was eating someone else’s lunch so I’ve pretty much withdrawn from it.

OOH this leads me also to think about the line about “fun”.

A lot of my writing is in the poetry/creative sphere and often times to get into book contests or submit to journals, you pay fees. Now, most of the time I understand this, but the work that will probably come out of this involves… being free. What does this mean? Am I a total sucker to continue paying this? (It doesn’t matter if you think I am, I’m still going to do it.)

potatopotato (#5,255)

Tit-for-tat with other skilled people? My dude helped his friend insulate his addition. When we buy our house, said friend is updating our electrical stuff. They work for each other for parts.

Marille (#5,933)

@potatopotato I think that’s a totally legit reason to work for “free”–I use the quotes because that seems a bit more like bartering, which has traditionally been a great way for people who were marginalized in traditional market structures to gain access to goods and services. For me, I’ll babysit your kids for an evening if you change the oil in my car, or bring a home-cooked meal in exchange for help with my laptop.

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