Should you work for free? It’s hard to decide when to put in time for nothing and when to say no. Here are four times when you should consider it, and some examples of unpaid gigs that led to paid ones.
So, someone has asked you to do work for free. Should you do it? Or should you give a gracious but firm, “Thanks, but no thanks?” It depends. Do you need the experience or the reputation boost? Is it a learning opportunity?
Should you work for free? There are absolutely times when the answer is yes.
There are those who would say you should never work for free. I’m not one of them. But I agree that you have to be careful not to be taken advantage of also, and, y’know, not to starve to death.
Sometimes people ask you to work for free and promise you there’s a possibility of getting hired later. Other times they suggest you do it for the exposure. Will they follow through on their promise? Is the exposure worth it? Sometimes the answer is yes. A lot of times it’s no. Sometimes (often?) people are just trying to get something for nothing.
How to decide? Here are four situations in which you should consider working for free:
1. When you have no experience and no other way to get it.
Nobody is going to hire you without experience and you can’t get experience without working. It’s a catch 22 but it isn’t “unfair.” Skills are acquired through doing a job and nobody is going to pay you for a job if you can’t prove that you can do it. Hiring someone to do a job isn’t about the job candidate. It’s not a favour someone does for you. It’s about a business with a need looking for someone to fill that need. The easiest way to prove that you can fill that need is to demonstrate that you have done it before.
I did a fair amount of work for free at the start of my career, writing for free for about two years for a publication that didn’t pay. This work allowed me to create a portfolio of published work to show editors in order to land paid gigs. These days, you can create your own blog or website, so, if you’re trying to become a writer, you’re not limited to working for someone else for free, though it’s still an option. The same goes for any job. Unpaid internships are supposed to give you a the experience you need to find a paid job. It gives you proof of concept. You should only work for free until you have your proof of concept. Then you should get paid. This also applies when you are changing careers.
2. When you have something to learn.
Internships are learning opportunities, as are apprenticeships. You should not expect someone to pay you for the privilege of teaching you something you need to know. If they do, it’s a bonus. But you’re not entitled to anything until your value outweighs your cost.
3. When it’s for a cause you believe in.
Many people will differentiate between “working for free” and “volunteering,” which is fair. But they are sometimes one and the same.
I do a lot of free work (aka “volunteering). Almost all of it is for refugee causes, because I believe it is important to help people. I don’t always get recognition for it (or “exposure”), and sometimes not even a “thank you.” But that’s OK, because that’s not why I do it.
Don’t get me wrong — I’m not a saint. Recognition and thanks are nice. But the cause is more important, and sometimes you have to be comfortable knowing that your contribution is going to be overlooked because people are busy paying attention to other things.
If you believe in a cause, I think you should do all you can do for nothing. I think you should give freely and generously of your time and energy and expect nothing in return.
4. When it will help your personal brand.
If you’re trying to gain credibility, and something has the power to give you real exposure or bragging rights, you should consider doing it for free. For example, writing about your area of expertise for a free platform. I don’t mean that you should write for free if you are a writer – I mean you might consider writing for free about, say, dry cleaning, if you are trying to get your dry cleaning business off the ground. If you are a writer I would absolutely not write for free once you’ve got that portfolio written and paid your dues (unless it’s for reason #3). And if someone is trying to get you to work for “the exposure” you should probably run the other way.
Another example of working for exposure would be donating a product to a swag bag at a conference, doing hair or makeup for free at a big event (if you’re a hairdresser or makeup artist), or teaching a free seminar.
Only you can decide if working for free is worth it
All this being said, there are exceptions to every rule. Only you can decide if a job merits doing for free and this will depend on both your personal rules and standards and on the situation.
14 examples of free work leading to paid work
I asked some friends on social media to tell me about a time they did free work that led to paid work. Here are a few of their answers. Note that almost all of them are either in the arts or the non-for-profit sector. I don’t know if this says more about the nature of my peer group or about the sectors in which free work leads to paid work. Probably a bit of both.
Question: “Have you ever done work for free that has lead to paid work? Please tell me about it.”
“I volunteered at a museum, unpaid for three months, and was eventually able to get on staff. I started getting some part-time shifts as a guide and then the admissions desk. After about five years I was able to get on staff as the event Event Coordinator. I’ve been doing events now for 15 years so it did lead to my career.”
“I volunteered with a local council regional arts centre. Began as a volunteer on the floor during a big exhibition. Ended up working for them for years in a few different roles.”
“Most of us in the film and TV industry have done our penance: low budget, no budget and Canadian Film Centre. Normally you get experience in your department (ie key or bestboy) in exchange for lack of payment.”
“I volunteered at Democracy Now a couple of times and ended up working there for two years.”
“I interned (doing sound engineering) at a music studio and then got hired less than two months after.”
“I did a social media management internship. Once it was over they asked if I wanted to work for them.”
“I did volunteer work in mental health in the mid 90s. Through this I got some contracts, and then my permanent position. When I went back to school and finished one of my student placements, got a consulting gig afterwards.”
“I did an unpaid internship as a reporter at a newspaper and was then hired on staff without even a job interview.”
“My first film job started as an internship at a film/TV company and lead to a full time job.”
“I acted in unpaid gigs and then was hired by the producer to be a writer and actor for a paid web series.”
“While raising small children I worked as a volunteer in various community organizations, eventually developed a reputation as an event organizer and basic hard worker, and used those connections as leverage when I entered the field of fundraising/development for non-profit arts orgs at age 47. I get paid now, very little, but I think I’m on a path.”
“I volunteered the first year at an arts festival and have been on staff now for three years.”
“I volunteered two years in a row at the Canadian Film Festival, and was then hired and paid as their Volunteer Coordinator.”