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8 Reasons why you can and should work for free

Plus when to say no in your creative business!

Working in the creative industries it is a certainty that at some point (often when you are first starting out in your own business), that you will be asked to work for free.  It can be hard to navigate the right answer, especially when you are trying to raise your profile, make connections in your sphere, and create a profile of work that represents truly what you want to be doing. But the starving artist reality is no fun and incredibly debilitating when you are trying to become a successful creative entrepreneur. The key is to choose the right projects to work on for free, and learn to say no when it doesn’t truly benefit you. If you aren’t being financially responsible for yourself then it is a hobby not a business. You can love what you do and still charge your worth.

So, when should you say ‘YES’, and when should it be a ‘NO’.

1. Exposure

Yes that old chestnut, “do this project for free and you will get great exposure”. In my experience it is often the people or corporations that can afford it most that push this tantalising offer. Be it a celebrity wedding, TV show or big company. Rarely will you actually get any exposure that matters (and no a tag on one Instagram post is NOT worth hundreds of pounds worth of your skills and time)! If the offer is genuinely exactly from your ideal client, or you have been desperate to work with the person or company and you see it as a way of starting a relationship, then do so on a contract basis. Just because you are offering your time for free does not mean they get anything they want for as long as they want. Be clear on, for example, the number of social media posts with a clear reference to your work, or a full credit (and links) to your website in printed or online publication, perhaps a blog post on your work for them too. Use your client contract (ie covering things like time-frames, client responsibilities, copyright, and anything else that you would normally include). And as a reminder to them, a normal break down of your costs and fees so that they know what to expect should they subsequently want to work with you again. Under no circumstances agree to do a project like this without these assurances. The more professional you appear and that you know your worth, the more likely they are to book you on a paid basis in the future.

2. Collaborations

ie projects like styled wedding shoots. These are to be viewed differently as you are exchanging your products or talents for those of the others on the project to create a whole that you could not achieve on your own. In these instances, be very clear that the shoot is on brand, equally beneficial to all (ie not someone’s brand shoot where they get everything tailored to one person), that there is a clear purpose to it, eg publication, and that you all get the rights to use the images however you choose afterwards. For an in depth checklist on what to consider for any styled shoot (be it as an organiser or simply a participant), then you can sign up to my mailing list here to receive it (along with some other great free advice and content on the subject of styled shoots). https://mailchi.mp/katecullen/styled-shoot-checklist

3. Portfolio Building

People often ask you to work for free because it will be great for your portfolio. Again, be sure that this is truly the case, is the work EXACTLY what you’d like to be doing on a paid basis, and is the client someone you really want to work with. If these boxes are ticked then it can be a truly great thing to do at the start of your career. Make sure you get testimonials in exchange and that you can use the project however you wish to showcase your skills and talents to your client base. Never agree to ‘portfolio building’ work if these things don’t ring true. Be polite and say that whilst you appreciate them reaching out, this type of project will be subject to your normal fees. Often they will respect your stance and if they truly want to work with you, will find a budget.

4. ‘It might lead to paid work further down the line’

This is a big ‘nope’ from me to be honest. It rarely transpires and is often just used to cajole you into saying yes, dangling you on the hook of non-existent work. If they are willing to pay you further down the line then they can get back in touch with you then for a quote.

5. Charity

Doing some work for a charity is a fabulous way of giving back to cause that is close your heart. Charities are usually also very good at making sure they thank you properly on social media or use you like sponsors and display your logos etc on their websites or written materials. Be sure before you agree that you have the time and resources to truly help them and give them what they need. If you foresee getting busy with paid projects do think carefully about how you will timetable this free work so that you don’t let anyone (or yourself) down.

6. Experience

If you are just starting out then experience is invaluable. Offering to shadow or assist on projects for those more experienced than you is always a good idea. It is easier to learn on the job than any other way. Just be careful that you don’t get exploited. Agree terms, hours and the types of things you will be doing. It’s no good cleaning tables if you’re trying to learn event management. That said, if someone is willing to mentor you in return for some of the less directly useful tasks for your career, then be prepared to put in some hard graft and make yourself indispensable. This will often lead to paid jobs in the future if you can prove you are reliable, trustworthy and hardworking. Check out the mentoring tab in the Nurture & Bloom Facebook Group if you are looking for opportunities: https://www.facebook.com/groups/NurtureandBloom/mentorship_application/

7. Skill Swap

A bit like styled shoots this is an exchange of talent rather than money. I use this quite often in my business. Again, be sure that no-one feels exploited. Quote for the work you will both do and make sure that it is of equal value, or that you will make up any shortfall either later in the year, or by formal payment (it is best to set an agreed date if this is the case). This is a great way for businesses who are perhaps at the same stage of growth to get the things they need to grow, eg design work, advice, social media help, VA, financial planning, etc.

8. Friends & Family

This is often the hardest one, because you are emotionally attached to the people asking it is very hard to think with your business hat on. Unless you are extremely close to someone and know that they FULLY value and understand what it is you do then I would politely decline those asking for your work for free. Instead think about setting up (an affordable) friends and family discount.

So to summarise, think clearly about the offer to work for free and consider carefully what the outcomes will be. You can use my handy diagram below – feel free to print it out and stick it on your office wall!

Reasons why you should and shouldn't work for free