Roundup: Does it Ever Make Sense to Work For Free?

September 28, 2018


Whether it’s for “exposure” or for charitable causes, at some point you’ll likely be asked to work for free. Should you do it?

Every small business owner has a story about the time a client, friend, neighbor, local charity or complete stranger asked them to provide their services for free. Some professionals shut down the conversation before it really begins; others consider “talent donations” another way to be charitable.

No matter how you view it, it’s wise to develop a policy about pro bono work as your business builds. We consulted five members of our successful small business owners panel to get their take on what works for them. And keep reading for 3 conditions under which working for free might actually be good for business.

Tim Dolan

  • Years in business: 4.5

What I Do:

“Kickframe is a new type of consulting and training firm built to serve the need that organizations have for a specialized digital strategy partner that is independent, agile and experienced. Kickframe helps organizations become better digital marketers.”

Do I Work for Free?

“I regularly work with non-profits at a reduced rate and take on speaking assignments for pro bono. If the organization or event aligns with my values and they appreciate my time and contribution (even if they do not pay for it), I generally say yes. I have been lucky – these have been some of the most interesting and rewarding assignments.”

Andrew & Jess Campbell, Workshop Training, Speaking, Writing, Project Management

  • Years in business: 8

What we Do:

“Andrew’s focus is on training and skill development in communications; Jess does project management and freelance writing.”

Do I Work for Free?

“Yes, we do quite a bit of it. We’re asked even more. It’s important to set a standard early, but also important to do some, particularly for organizations and causes in your community or ones that are important to you. That’s our bar. Youth organizations and non-profit groups within our community are important to us, and do important work – so we want to give back. We also set up a non-profit rate structure for workshops & training. That way they can still afford to have the best services.



Joshua Speers, Graphic Designer

  • Years in business: 5

What I Do:

“Graphic design, web design, branding, design/marketing consulting.”

Do I Work for Free?

“It always depends on the scope of the work, who it’s for and how much time I can dedicate. I would always set specific standards from the beginning so the ‘client’ understands the value of your time and doesn’t try to take advantage.”

Suzanne Colmer

  • Years in business: 10

What I Do:

“We help women and men shop smarter and teach them how to love all of the clothes in their closet.”

Do I Work for Free?

“I love what I do and I don’t mind doing it for free as long as it is going to benefit a cause that I believe in.”

Paul Russell

  • Years in business: 25

What I Do:

“I’m a writer and communications consultant specializing in both corporate communications and marketing. I have extensive experience working in the human resources (internal communications) and financial services (external communications) areas.”

Do I Work for Free?

“I’ll always help out a good client who needs a favour (which are usually small). But my general rule is that I don’t do pro bono work. I leave my charity/volunteer work for my personal life and I really like to keep my work life as ‘paid work’. So even for charities and not-for-profits who are clients, I don’t discount my rates. People – even at charities – can and will take advantage of your good nature, and you have to relentlessly protect your ability to make a living, because no one else will.”



3 Conditions When Pro Bono Work Makes Sense

While it might seem counter intuitive to give away your services for free, there are times when it could benefit your business.

 

You Want To Use Your Skills To Give Back

Some people volunteer at soup kitchens. Some donate funds to causes that are near to their heart. Another way to give back is to leverage your professional skills, talent and experience. Graphic designers, landscapers, writers, lawyers and other service- based professionals have a lot to offer to charities and non-profit organizations that are often desperately short of funds.

The trick to making sure your charity work doesn’t bleed into your paid world is to be clear about the scope up front. It’s one thing to design a poster for an event, but if that initial ask turns into redesigning the website and creating a series of brochures, you may wish you never started your volunteer stint. Be specific about what you’re available to do and maybe even quantify the number of hours you can devote to your volunteering.

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You Want To Go the Extra Mile

Sometimes it’s a boss professional move to help out a client at the 11th hour by tossing off some revisions without billing for it – or touching up a project for which you’ve already invoiced. Why? Because, if they’re high-quality clients (and humans), they’ll remember your heroic move and throw even more great work your way.

Of course, there are some clients who will take advantage of your commitment to customer service, so it’s important to have a limit — even if it’s only in your own mind. Be flexible but firm about what you’re willing to do.

Your “Altruistic” Act Will Get Noticed

Sometimes you can kill two birds with one stone by being charitable and drumming up business for yourself. Sponsoring a local sports team, landscaping the backyard of a homeless shelter or writing a compelling story to appeal for donations to a food bank are all ways service-based professionals can use their skills to do good. Don’t be shy about slapping the name of your business on the work—in a way that doesn’t detract from the charity. The more eyeballs who recognize your talent, the more likely you are to get referral business.

Take the time at the beginning of your business to clarify your thoughts on volunteering your professional services. It’s not for everyone, but if it’s something you want to do, be clear about your boundaries.


about the author

Freelance Contributor Heather Hudson is an accomplished freelance writer and journalist based in Toronto. She writes for a number of publishing, corporate and agency clients who depend on her to deliver high-quality, on-brand content and journalism with a fresh perspective. Learn more about her work at .