Working for free

It is the season of goodwill now in the run-up to Christmas, but when it comes to gifting your work time how much of that is done freely and willingly? Completely aside from any discussion around unpaid internships, or even long hours culture, the subject of working for free is an interesting one. It comes up when you seek advice over how to gain work experience, and volunteering time is often cited as useful for those seeking to get their first step on the career ladder, those looking to move into a different industry or profession, or those working for themselves who are looking to build up contacts and a customer base.

Volunteering is seen as a good way of gaining valuable work experience, or of gifting some of your own experience to an organisation that you respect or want to see grow. Mrs Moneypenny, anonymous writer for the Financial Times, writes in her book Careers Advice for Ambitious Women about volunteering as a way of adding a ‘third dimension’ to your life and career that will make you both interested in and interesting to other people.

But what is also important is knowing when to say no. Knowing when volunteering your time is actually of no benefit to you or your career whatsoever, and Mrs Moneypenny’s advice is that learning to say no is an important life skill, necessary to learn if you really want to be successful.

Jessica Hische, a letterer, illustrator and type designer, gives some pretty good advice for freelancers on working for free through this flow diagram. Her advice may be a bit hard-line for some (and there are a few profanities in there for good measure), but the message is clear: if you’re going to manage your own business you need to be able to select projects that are going to benefit you in one way or another. Just agreeing to work for free because you are asked to doesn’t necessarily mean there’s anything in it for you.

I would argue that choosing whether to work for free or gift extra time comes down to your own motivation for doing the work, which could be 1 of 3 things:

  1. You genuinely believe in the cause involved or strongly want to help
  2. You want the work to advance your own development in some way
  3. You are building your network of contacts and this would genuinely lead to paid work in the future

You can volunteer and contribute time and skills all you want, but if you want to be successful at what you’re doing and make a living from it you have to pick and choose projects. It’s about being able to tell the difference between voluntarily contributing to something, investing time and energy in something that will pay off later, or being taken advantage of. When approached you can ask yourself these questions:

  1. Is my free work helping someone else make ‘loadsamoney’?
  2. Is anyone else being paid by the same organisation to do this work (or being paid to do less important work)?
  3. Could and would anyone else do this work for free?

If the answer to the first two questions is ‘yes’, and the last one ‘no’ then shouldn’t you probably be getting paid too?