Why You Shouldn’t Work for Free and Why I Do

Why You Shouldn’t Work for Free
& Why I Do

Some time ago I posted a behind the scenes shot of an interview shoot that I did pro-bono for a real cool non-profit along with a short blurb that mentioned that “this year and in the future I’m going to be setting time aside to help non-profit and charitable organizations create video content to increase their reach and share their mission.” The post got a fair amount of attention and it made me feel like perhaps the subject of pro-bono work should be addressed in more detail because doing free work can lead to very good things but on the other hand it can be bad business and can actually do some harm. Let’s take a look.

Why is working for free bad?

It devalues your time.
By agreeing to free work you can give the impression that your time isn’t of much value. The client, willingly or not, will remember this and could take advantage of you in the future.

It could be depriving another person of paid work.
Are you undercutting a job just because you want to win the work? If the client is asking for bids on a job that they have a budget for but you tell them you’ll do it for nothing or next to nothing you are taking money off the table. There has been a number of times where I’ve spent hours on bids and submitted concepts that are within the clients budget only to have the client say “sorry but so-and-so said that they would do it at no cost or at cost and we can’t turn that down.” 

It devalues the industry as a whole.
Brands and agencies know that lots of people will jump at the opportunity to work with them and will often use this clout to get people to work for next to nothing. Don’t let companies profit at your own expense. Know your value and stick to it. 

Why is working for free good?

It can lead to future work
Free work can be a proving ground to show that you have what it takes. This is hugely important when you are starting off in the industry. It’s essential that you take steps set your clients expectations when you do this. Set the ground rules like, “This is a great concept, my normal rate is $xx/hr but I would be willing to work the first 8 hours for free and if you like what you see we can continue at the normal rate.” This will let your client know that this is essentially a free trial, you value your time, you value the outcome of the project, and that you are excited to take them on as a client.

It can be a chance to be more creative and take risks
When money is taken out of the equation we are free to make mistakes and take risks. Doing something for free disrupts the balance of power in a creative endeavor where the client owes YOU for taking the time to help them. So you can jump into the driver’s seat and try things that they might normally reject. This doesn’t mean you disregard the client altogether because they give valuable guidance on how the project can succeed (which is ultimately the goal).

It can redirect the work you get
You need to do the work you want before you win the work you want. If you have a passion for documentary work but you’re stuck doing corporate work all the time a passion project can help you break free from your current cycle.

Before working for free ask these questions:

Who benefits?
Who am I doing this for?
Will this lead to future work?
Am I taking money off the table?
And the most telling question: Am I working for free in order to win the work?


Use free work to your advantage 

For my part, I’ve decided to dedicate a portion of my year to helping non-profits share their stories. I do this for the community as well as for myself. I seek out the stories on my own and I plan on reaching out to the organizations offering my help. This allows me to pick my projects and to follow my own creative pursuits. This works for me and helps me give back to the community while also building and directing my portfolio in the direction I want it to go. Working for free might not be for everyone so it’s important to evaluate your own situation so see if it’s a good idea or not.

Since hitting the reset on Proper Studios and leaving the agency world I’ve had to rethink the way I work and the way that I see clients. One of the biggest and hardest adjustments was to not prioritize money. I needed to break myself of the producer mindset of budgets, line-items, and timelines, and shift my priority to relationships, creative work, and my future. This doesn’t mean I don’t care or think about money, I do. I simply put people and relationships first and work on ways to help others when I can. The money will follow.


Is working for free worth it in your experience? Has it ever gone bad?

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