The Freelancer’s Dilemma: Should You Work for Free?


Is it ever appropriate to work for free? Even if you’re a freelancer?

If you’re a creative, there is a 99.9 percent chance that you have at one point or another worked for free. Sure, you were “paid” in coffee or some other barter system, but there was no cash transaction. And even if you have never worked for free, it’s 99.99 percent certain that you have worked for less money then you deserved to earn.

It has been said that we are the slaves of the internet, and in a culture of content creation, the value of content has gone down. The market is saturated, and when there are so many wanting to make it and offering up their services for free, the chance that you will get paid for your content goes down.

Of course this is an oversimplification of a problem that ultimately comes down to a vicious cycle: individuals undervalue their own work, which in turn makes other people undervalue it as well. If you want your work to be seen as valuable, then you have to see it as valuable first, especially if you’re embarking on a career as a freelancer.

Should you work for free?

No. Well, sometimes yes. But, no, really you should always try to say no. Except for in those situations where you should say yes.

You can see why this is complicated.

Working for free sets a precedent, and while you may just want to get your name out there, if you’re trying to build a client list and a respectable reputation, taking jobs that don’t pay anything doesn’t help you do that.

On the other hand, sometimes doing something for free isn’t necessarily about the payment, it’s about the promotion, or about spreading a certain idea.

As marketing expert and author Seth Godin says, “The more generous you are with your ideas, and the more they spread, the more likely it is your perceived value goes up.” This means, however, that you need to gauge the level at which your ideas are being spread. Free work for is one thing, and an opinion piece in a nationally acclaimed newspaper, is quite another.


Need some direction in establishing whether or not you should work for free? Illustrator Jessica Hische designed the Should I Work for Free? flow chart. It’s a bit tongue in cheek and yet I have found myself referencing it regularly. In a nutshell: your mother deserves your free labor, but the established business that promises you “a good portfolio piece” doesn’t.

Talk to anyone that works in the freelance business and the likelihood is that at some point during their career they assessed a situation to evaluate whether or not they should work for free. Often times, when people have weighed the pros and cons, and know what the potential benefits of free work will be, they will go ahead and do it. Everyone has a “well, I did this for free, and then it lead to this and then it lead to this and now I am doing this other great paying project.”

And unfortunately, we live in a society where money equals success.

As Tim Kreider points out in The New York Times, “Practicalities aside, money is also how our culture defines value, and being told that what you do is of no ($0.00) value to the society you live in is, frankly, demoralizing. Even sort of insulting. And of course when you live in a culture that treats your work as frivolous you can’t help but internalize some of that devaluation and think of yourself as something less than a bona fide grown-up.”

Ultimately, it comes down to the value question: do you truly feel that your own work is being valued? And to add on the that question, have you thought about the value of the work of other people in your industry, and are you helping or hindering it?

Decide your value and do your best so that others understand that value as well.

Related on EcoSalon

That Happened: 3 Reasons Work Still Sucks for Women

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Between the Lines: The Power of the Written Word

Images: Jessica HischeAnonymous

Anna Brones

Anna Brones is a food + travel writer with a love for coffee and bikes. She is the author of The Culinary Cyclist and Fika: The Art of the Swedish Coffee Break. Catch her weekly column, Foodie Underground.