Should you ever work for free?

I lose count of my “jobs” these days: my literary writing (that theoretically pays, or had better one day or else), a magazine I started last summer. While I certainly put the same intensity into everything, I can definitely say that I work more hours for free than I do for pay.

So when I got the advice from a well-meaning friend, “You shouldn't let them work you like that for free!” I had to shake my head a little to see his perspective. I'm so committed to these projects (and I know the money simply isn't there unless I raise it myself) that I don't mind the work:pay ratio. My general agreement with myself is that, as long as I'm making enough money to pay bills, buy good coffee and local meats and veggies, and save a little, I can do whatever I want with my (ahem) “spare” time as long as it's for a genuinely good cause.

I heard the same phrase again a few days later, directed at someone else. “You shouldn't do that for free.”

Well, maybe you should do it for free?

I honor and pay fealty to your right to maintain your own sets of career principles and your own agreements with yourselves. But I'd like to point out that doing a thing for free might often be in your best interests and, if you have your basic financial bases covered like bills, food and savings, doing things for free could be good for your financial and your emotional bottom lines. Actually, there are many times doing a thing for free could be… well, profitable.

Disclaimer: Many commission-based sales positions have enormous appetite for people working for free, and I cannot quite envision the time when such commission-based sales would qualify for any of my below categories. I'd love to hear your experiences if you believe differently!

Consider doing the thing for free if it meets with one or more of these possibilities:

1. You can have access to the very best in your industry.

A lot of academic and nonprofit work ends up this way. At many local writing and creative non-profits, volunteers hobnob with established writers and artists whose reputations are truly luminous by taking them out for drinks, designing newsletters or staffing events where you may not be paid for the drink you just handed to Tom Brokaw. But come on — Tom Brokaw!

It's the “layer” of superstars just under the Tom Brokaw level who can potentially be the most helpful to your career and to whom you wouldn't have access if you were doing similar work for pay (say, as a cocktail waitress or caterer or managing the customer newsletter for a small business). These are the people who will be the “who” in the old famous phrase, “it's not what you know, it's who you know.”

As the representative of the nonprofit on whose board I serve (and which has me up late many nights working for free), I took it upon myself at a small writers conference I attended to show a good time to the agent who had been brought in to give us talks on the publishing process. We're now great friends, and though I have my own agent, I will look to her for advice and connections to her favorite editors. It was free, and it could be the relationship that makes all the difference in my career.

2. You can learn skills you could not learn (or not so quickly) in a for-pay job.

A lot of grant writers and public relations professionals begin their careers like this: the PTA or the neighborhood board or the church outreach group sees an opportunity to apply for a grant. Or a small startup need to get some PR and can't pay. “I've always wanted to learn that,” the parent or neighborhood board member or friend-of-a-startup says. “I'll try!”

A couple of turgid books and dozens or hundreds of hours of free work later, and the grant is submitted or the public is related-to. Once you've accomplished that and had quantifiable successes, those can be easily translated into for-pay work (and the good kind, that pays handsomely by the hour), and those you've helped will be eager to write you references.

3. You can have a title you could not qualify for otherwise

I run a magazine, and we always need more help. “I would love to have an editorial position on my resume,” said one volunteer. While the volunteer's skills are bountiful, her experience is in other fields; we're not going to split hairs and we happily offered up a title that gave both the gravitas she required and also filled the functional hole we needed filled.

While it's even more work for free, starting your own thing is another way to get a title for which you may not be able to be hired. A small nonprofit organization you started could use an executive director! How about you? Next time you want to apply for a position whose screeners won't accept anyone without [fill in blank] years of experience in [fill in blank] management, you'll fill in all the blanks.

4. Your free work will give you leverage for a for-pay position

A board member came to the board with an offer: “I work as executive director free for six months, while I work to raise money for a salary for myself.” Once six months had arrived and the volunteer had raised the requisite money in grants and donations we might never have attempted without him, it was an easy sell.

If you're going this route, it's good to get the agreements in writing, and even worth hiring a labor attorney to draft a contract with specific benchmarks. “If Jane Jones raises $x thousand in grants and $x thousand in individual donations by December 31, the salary will be $y effective January 1.”

5. You just really, really love what your work is doing

If you can afford to work for free, and you're slaving away for some tiny nonprofit staffed by homeless youth, and there is no future in this work, and you're far too old to get any sort of “community service” credit for this, and all you're doing is washing dishes but you are having amazing conversations with the people you serve and you feel you're making a difference in the world? GO FOR IT. Be prepared to look your well-meaning advisers in the eyes when you complain about your wrinkled hands or the stinky neighborhood where you work, when they say, “You shouldn't work for free.” You can say, “Thanks for caring about me,” and show up again tomorrow because you are awesome and the world needs more people like you.

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Clara
Clara
7 years ago

So true. Right out of grad school I got a paid job, a decent one but not quite in my field. But before I got that job, I started volunteering IN my field and that blossomed into some amazing opportunities, including having coffee with my Congressman in his Capital Hill office, a great picture of me at work on a national website, training in policy lobbying and, if all things work out in the next couple of days, some press for myself, my grad school and the cause I am working for.

William Cowie
William Cowie
7 years ago

There are situations where you do something (like the nonprofit board you mentioned) that are more giving back to the community than work. That’s a good thing and it takes time, but I wouldn’t call that work. Of course, every person has a slightly different understanding of what constitutes work, but I would only put activities under than heading if their goal is a financial reward of some sort. And for that, the answer has to be yes, there are times when it’s a good way to go, but you have to be very careful, because, like you say, there… Read more »

Jean
Jean
7 years ago
Reply to  William Cowie

If you think that sitting on a non-profit board isn’t work, then you’ve never sat on a non-profit board. I regularly log over 500 hours/year in volunteer hours for a non-profit organization.

Kate
Kate
7 years ago

I would advise young grads to be very very cautious with this advice. Unfortunately, the old rules of volunteering or interning or working for free (however you want to call it) are starting to wear thin. They work if you are dealing on a one-to-one exchange- ie. you’re the only one doing it and it helps you to stand out- but it absolutely doesn’t work when it becomes the industry standard. If there is a deep pool of folks willing to work for free, and that becomes the expectation, then most of the above justifications are moot. See: the graphic… Read more »

BD
BD
7 years ago
Reply to  Kate

I was just about to mention the Graphic Design industry. I’m an out-of-work graphic designer. There are too many aspiring graphic designers, and too few jobs, and to make things worse, many corporations are getting their design work for Free, just as mentioned in this article. Unfortunately, back in the 90’s, when I entered the field, I didn’t know what the future would bring, and I did work for free in the graphic design industry in 1994. It did get me a part-time job later with the company, which then led to a full time job with a different company.… Read more »

Michelle at Making Sense of Cents
Michelle at Making Sense of Cents
7 years ago

I plan on volunteering once I make the leap to self employed. I plan on take unpaid volunteer positions so that I can see what will work best with my schedule and what non-profit would fit me best.

I think it’ll be better this way because I won’t be tied down to a job since I do plan on focusing on self employment as much as I can.

Jane
Jane
7 years ago

Like Sarah points out, academics work for free all the time. But it’s certainly not out of the goodness of their hearts. By writing, reviewing and doing other things for free, one is beefing up one’s resume and publications in order to eventually get a coveted tenure track job. The problem is that so few actually get those jobs. I opted out of academia entirely, but it will be interesting to see if this free labor and writing continues if the job market never improves. People might rebel or they might get even more desperate and compete even more heavily… Read more »

Johanna
Johanna
7 years ago
Reply to  Jane

Maybe it’s different elsewhere in academia, but in the sciences (which is what I’m familiar with), tenured and tenure-track faculty still do a lot of writing, reviewing, outreach, etc. They’re hired for those jobs with the expectation that they’ll spend a portion of their time on those activities, so it’s not really work for free – it’s just work done for people other than the ones who are directly paying you.

I totally agree with you about the reliance in some fields on adjunct labor, though. Adjunct abuse seems pretty similar to unpaid intern abuse.

Jane
Jane
7 years ago
Reply to  Johanna

It’s the same in the humanities. One of the reasons why I didn’t pursue academia is because there was always something else to write or research, always another conference to attend or a panel to chair. It’s just part of the unspoken job description. I think professors, tenured or not, work A LOT, and yes, technically it is not for free, but the pay scale in most fields of academia is relatively low all things considered. Rarely does anyone go into it for the money. On the one hand, academia can be good for work/life/family balance, since one can have… Read more »

Johanna
Johanna
7 years ago
Reply to  Jane

This is now veering pretty far off topic, but in the sciences, I’d say that academia is the polar opposite of good for work/life/family balance, at least (or especially) if you’re a woman who wants to have children, because the years when superhuman levels of effort are required – to go from postdoc to assistant professor to tenured professor – tend to fall in one’s late 20s through mid 30s. Based on the women I know who are academic scientists with children, the choice seems to be between waiting until you get tenure to have children (and taking the chance… Read more »

Thomas at Your Daily Finance
Thomas at Your Daily Finance
7 years ago

Free to some is different to others. Gaining knowledge, access to a network of people, and opportunities to things that others may not have is not free in my opinion. Of course people will look at only as it relates to money. Taking an internship for free at a top company may be better in a lot of aspects vs a paid position a local company. Don’t not do something because it doesn’t pay dollars!

TB at BlueCollarWorkman
TB at BlueCollarWorkman
7 years ago

That’s all well and true. And sometimes doing work for free ends up landing you a full time job with those same people (that just happened to my sister). But overall, I have to agree that you shouldn’t be doing THAT much for free. A little bit of free stuff is good, for the reasons you mentioned, but at some point, your time has value and so does your family. You can’t feed your family on nothing.

John S @ Frugal Rules
John S @ Frugal Rules
7 years ago

I think there is a balance to it, which can be difficult to find at times. We like to volunteer for organizations we care about, but that time comes at a premium. We do find though that since we run our own business that we do run into people that want something for free. We’re happy to help were we can, but free does not put food on the table.

Johanna
Johanna
7 years ago

The only really big exceptions I see are when the “work” is really a hobby (that you don’t intend ever to turn into a career) or a charitable donation (for an organization that you’d be happy to support with money instead of labor if that’s what they needed most). But then, it’s not really “work.” If you’re working for free with the hope of eventually doing the same work for pay, be very careful to keep a clear head about whether your hopes are realistic. In particular, if you’re trying to get your foot in the door in a field… Read more »

SavvyFinancialLatina
SavvyFinancialLatina
7 years ago

I worked for free for a start up before. I was in school, and could afford to work for free. I thoroughly enjoyed working for a start up and being a creator. I would love to go back.

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
7 years ago

Working for free? NEVER.

Donating time and money to worthy causes? MAYBE.

PS –

https://www.getrichslowly.org/9-traits-of-underearners/

Janice
Janice
7 years ago

There’s working for free and volunteering. While both can be real work involving long hours and lots of dedication, volunteering for non-profits or civic causes is different and is usually an aside from one’s job or career. Having done both in my life, I’d like to comment on the working for free aspect. a) Be as sure as you can that you’re not being exploited–as in someone’s making money but it isn’t you; and b) that in exchange for the money you won’t be making, you will be getting either (real, not promised) exposure, status, experience and/or having so much… Read more »

Ely
Ely
7 years ago

I think the short version is, if you work for free make sure you are getting value. Which makes it not ‘for free’. Also make sure it is something YOU want to do and you are doing it for YOU. I’m a (brand new) writer and I’m aware that I won’t get paid for my work anytime soon if ever. As such I’m only going to write exactly what I want to write, for me and not for anyone else. If that turns into money later, great. But since the chances of that are so low, I’m not going to… Read more »

Jane
Jane
7 years ago
Reply to  Ely

“I’m a (brand new) writer and I’m aware that I won’t get paid for my work anytime soon if ever.” Are you writing fiction or poetry? Otherwise, you very much should be paid for what you write. I am writing in my field of expertise, which is decidedly low paid as a whole, and have made quite a bit in the past month. This is for freelance projects that I write and/or edit in my free time. I steer clear of most online content, unless highly specialized or more in marketing, because people or bloggers wanted me to write 500-1,000… Read more »

Jake
Jake
7 years ago

I completely agree with all of your scenarios above. Working for free is not ideal, but it can help you get to where you want to go quicker. If it’s going to get you to your end goal faster and you have the time then I’d say go for it.

SJM
SJM
7 years ago

I’d like to know the ratio of men to women who work for free.

krantcents
krantcents
7 years ago

My son had an unpaid internship for 4 weeks between the 2nd and 3rd year of law school. He still networks with some those attorneys.

Taryl Andersen
Taryl Andersen
7 years ago

Not responding to anyone’s post in particular but this article pushes one of my buttons – which is the small minded thinking that one must be paid by the hour. Many of us have jobs that require enormous amounts of time for an annual salary. Its called a career. If you want to get paid by the hour, apply at Starbucks.

Jacq
Jacq
7 years ago
Reply to  Taryl Andersen

I work contract and get paid by the hour and have a career. Fortunately, it’s $100/hour.

Tina @ My Shiny Pennies
Tina @ My Shiny Pennies
7 years ago

I would work for free if:
1. I don’t need the money; and/or
2. The benefits I receive outweigh the part about not bringing home a paycheck.

lmoot
lmoot
7 years ago

Many of the jobs people traditionally get paid for, are not necessarily jobs people would do for free anyway. Anytime you get into the fun, trendy, creative jobs, you will always need to be better than the hordes out there that are willing to do it for free or near free because it’s a fun, cool, etc type of job. It’s the reality. People who work in the billing offices of insurance companies make more money and have better benefits than most free-lance writers/ designers, etc because who’s going to do that for free? There’s no glory, but there’s also… Read more »

Elizabeth
Elizabeth
7 years ago
Reply to  lmoot

“it’s equally important that your skills are actually pay-worthy”

YES. Many people don’t write, design, play music, or take photographs as well as they think they do. If you want to earn decent money, then spend time honing the skills.

Emma | iHELP students loans
Emma | iHELP students loans
7 years ago

I agree that in some situations, especially as a young grad, working for free means that you get other benefits that might help you launch your career. However, I would also agree with Kate above that suggested being very careful when going this route.

Mike@WeOnlyDoThisOnce
7 years ago

Unpaid internships for college students are increasingly highly controversial, it seems. Yes, you do learn a lot, but in this economy with the amount of student debt–seems unfair.

Leslie
Leslie
7 years ago

I completely agree with you. There are times when working for free can be at your advantage. Almost four years ago when my landlord’s property manager retired, I offered to help him out for free because I was (and still am!) eager to learn about rental properties (so is my boyfriend). I was still working at the time, so I offered to help him out when I could. He politely declined then, but about four months ago he came to me asking for my help in exchange for free rent and it has turned into free rent plus him paying… Read more »

Elizabeth
Elizabeth
7 years ago

Given where I am in my career, I have to draw a line. I’ll work for free (i.e. volunteer) for a good cause or to help out someone. I would seriously question working for free or for a pittance for someone who is making a profit from my unpaid work. (I say “seriously question” because if profit is involved, this is a business transaction rather than a good work and there has to be a good benefit for me.) Many of the companies in my area offer paid internships/co-op opportunities and have new grad hiring initiatives. I wish more companies… Read more »

Ryan
Ryan
7 years ago

The best advice I have heard on this subject is to never volunteer to do what your profession is. IE: If you paint houses, don’t paint someones house for free. Instead volunteer doing something outside of your profession.

John
John
7 years ago

I never ‘work’ for free. I have many hobbies that I do just for enjoyment, including writing, building furniture, home improvement (on my house and friends homes) and numerous charitable endeavors. My job I expect to get paid for, every time all the time. My hobbies, not so much.

Greg Platon
Greg Platon
7 years ago

Well, working for free may be advisable but to some extent only. If you are simply looking for a work experience that would add credit to your resume. But working for free for long would not be practical. Asking for minimum pay is better than no pay at all.

Skint in the City
Skint in the City
7 years ago

I think that most of us who run a blog or website work for free because the earnings – at least for the first couple of years – don’t balance out the time put it. But we do it because we have things we want/need to say and also because we are slowly building a business. Sometimes you need to play the long game but equally be realistic enough to periodically take stock and change things if they’re not achieving what you hoped. Also, sometimes it all depends how much you love it! I sing jazz and sometimes get paid… Read more »

Kirk Kinder
Kirk Kinder
7 years ago

If the work will advance your career in the future, then it is a good idea. If the free work jeopardizes your family’s living standards, you may want to find a paying job instead.

In today’s competitive job market, the resume is enormously important. If you can beef it up with a free internship, then I say do it.

David Raff
David Raff
7 years ago

Along with the skill building and connections that can be created, so much good comes out of serving on nonprofit boards. If you have time, energy and talents, time spent actively working for local nonprofit organizations helps both serve yourself and your community. I am also a big advocate of internship programs. We have brought on student interns at our CPA firm for years and just last year hired on of our interns as a full time accountant. She was familiar with our firm and has been one of the best additions to our staff we have ever made. Very… Read more »

Em
Em
7 years ago

I disagree with this article.
I could site several examples, but I’ll keep it short:
This is what I tell young people who are picking their career- Stay away from any industry where a free “internship” is the norm. If you really love it then fine, but don’t expect to make much and have a backup plan. Because:

WHEN FREE WORK IS AVALIABLE IT WILL ERODE YOUR SALARY FOREVER, AND IT MAY MAKE IT HARD TO EVEN FIND A JOB IN A POOR ECONOMY.

Volunteering for a non-profit is a whole different topic.

Donna Freedman
Donna Freedman
7 years ago

Freelance writers are particularly susceptible to the idea of writing “for the exposure.”
You know what? People DIE of exposure.
But seriously: Unless you really believe that it will lead to paying work, or unless you’re trading posts with other bloggers, or unless you’re really anxious to get your name/your site out there, don’t write for free if you can help it. People *will* take advantage of your willingness to give it away.

Debt Blag
Debt Blag
7 years ago

It’s not the worst idea as long as you go into it with a strategy (e.g. Informational interview and other networking from day one, ask your supervisor how to turn the unpaid position into a paid one, apply to positions from within). I got my current job from an internship and before this, worked in a field where workers almost exclusively came from the ranks of interns.

Brianna
Brianna
7 years ago

There are several options for you to make your business a great opportunity to earn fast
cash from online marketing. Step 4 : This is the main step in making money online and that
is promotion. But, once the payment is done then they vanish without a trace and
the person who paid money has to bear the brunt.

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