Why I Work for Free

January 11, 2016

We’ve all done our share of free labor in the past; on occasion, I still do. Even at this point in my career, I’m not above working for free under the right circumstances. Here are four questions I ask myself before taking on my next unpaid project.

Do I care about this company’s mission?

If I don’t feel an emotional connection to the purpose or the mission of the company, then I’m probably not interested in doing work for them. For me, there has to be a level of altruism in the product or service they’re providing that I want to be associated with. This is first on the list for a reason — it’s the main deciding factor.

Will I still be interested three months from now?

This is important for me because I tend to have “shiny object syndrome”, and I sometimes bounce from one new project to the other. If I think a project is capable of holding my attention for longer than a couple months, the chances of me taking it on increases significantly.

Would my portfolio benefit from the work?

If there’s an aspect of a project that allows me to add something new and different to my portfolio, that increases the a chance I will take on the project. I think we can all agree that having quality pieces in your portfolio is a good thing! Projects that I’ve pursued in the past like these have included style guides, logos and websites that allowed me to stretch my skills.

Is the client a good fit for me?

I struggle with this one. I’ve been burned in the past by not answering this question honestly. It’s no fun working with people that don’t share my views or who aren’t willing to at least try to see things from my perspective. It’s an absolute deal-breaker. If the relationship is new, then I proceed with caution and always give myself an out of some kind, normally through the language I use in contracts. If it happens to be a more familiar relationship, I have a little more leeway but I still have to make sure I’m not being taken advantage of for the sake of the project.

Even with these questions, one great thing about working for free is the opportunity it provides me to pick up or put down a project at a moment’s notice. Beggars can’t be choosers, and if my series of questions served me well and I ended up choosing the right client, then they won’t give me too much grief should a paid project come along. It’s a bit of a balancing act when these situations come up. I love the autonomy that comes with free work, but I also know my time and skill hold a certain value.

So let me be clear: As creative people, we all need to know our value. I recognize when to charge what I know I’m worth, but every now and then a project comes along that passes my criteria that I really feel good about and want to be a part of building. In those cases, I work for free.

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