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 nonprofit board on which I serve as president, and the 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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