Is it Ever a Good Idea for a Freelancer to Work for Free?

Every freelance professional, at one time or another, has been asked to work for free. Ask any freelancer, in any sector, and they will have a story to tell about a prospect who considered payment as optional. Which begs the question, is it ever a good idea for a freelancer to work for free? 

Whether it’s the promise of future paid work down the line or the offer of brand exposure, working for free might occasionally seem like a good tactical move. Yet is it? Is it ever wise to work for a client who demands your time and expertise in return for opaque promises that may never transpire? 

In this article, we’ll explore the pros and cons of occasionally working for free. Plus, why sometimes it’s a good idea to actively seek out unpaid work.  

Reasons why you should never work for free as a freelancer

Working for free is sometimes a good idea for a freelance professional. Yet this should never be in response to a prospect’s request to do so. As well as being unethical, this request shows the prospect has zero respect for you or the services you provide. 

They are therefore likely to treat you as a commodity, rather than a skilled freelance professional in your particular area of expertise. Experienced freelancers will tell you, clients who demand free or heavily discounted work are often a pain to work with. 

Their lack of respect for your skills means they nitpick every aspect of the work you provide. They are the definition of a bad client

Promises of future paid work in return for exceptional quality upfront are also usually smoke and mirrors. This future work very rarely materializes.  

And what’s more, you might even be losing money. 

You are ultimately paying to work for free

Depending on your industry and specialism, you probably have costs associated with providing work for clients. The software, materials, and supplies you use cost money to run or purchase. Therefore, the free work you carry out is actually not free at all. You’re paying for it. 

You are also selling yourself short by taking away valuable marketing time which can grow your business. 

But sometimes working for free is not a bad idea at all. 

When it might benefit you to work for free as a freelancer

As with all things in life, nothing is black and white, and this applies to free work as well. It’s easy to say a freelancer should never work for free, but occasionally providing your services without cost can be an intelligent career and marketing strategy. 

This strategy applies especially to new freelancers, perhaps fresh out of college. 

New freelancers

As a newbie, freelancing can be an exciting proposition, especially if you’re desperate to work digitally and from any location. Yet getting your first client can be tricky, and this is where working for free can help. 

For example, you can:

Work for free to gain experience 

Someone in your family or circle of friends will need the services you provide. By offering to help them free of charge, you get your first taste of the freelancing lifestyle. 

Work for free to start your portfolio 

Without some examples of your work, it’s difficult for potential clients to trust your abilities. Having no portfolio can be a problem. By offering to work for free in return for a sample piece, and even a testimonial, you’ll have something to show prospects in the future. 

Work for free to gain confidence 

If you’ve never worked for yourself before the thought of communicating with a paying client – or collaboration partner – can feel intimidating. Working for free, preferably for someone you already know, allows you to get to grips with the process and overcome any self-doubt

Work for free to test new software 

All freelancers use software of some kind. For example, good invoicing software is essential as are time-tracking and project management tools. Working without payment – or for a little coffee money – allows you to test out the software you’ll soon be using every day. 

Experienced freelancers

As we’ve seen, new freelancers have several reasons to work for free initially. But what about more experienced freelancers? Is it ever okay for an established freelance professional to offer their services without expectation of payment? 

Here are some scenarios where it might make sense. 

For example, you can:

Work for free to help charities 

Many local charities rely on the goodwill of volunteers. They may need your skills to help other people, animals, or the environment. Offering your services pro bono can be a great way to do good by others and the world as a whole. 

Some professionals dedicate 5% or more of their billable time each month to charity work. 

Exchange comparably priced services 

Occasionally, and if both parties are entirely in agreement, trading comparatively priced services for free with a fellow professional can be a logical move. For example, a copywriter might write a couple of new website pages for a web designer, in return for an updated business logo

Write for free to boost marketing and SEO efforts

For any freelancer, marketing is an essential daily activity. Writing free guest articles for industry publications and influential websites can be a powerful marketing and search engine optimization strategy. You’ll receive a byline with a reference or link to your site. 

Guest posting can take focus away from billable work, but it can also quickly introduce high-paying clients to your brand. 

Taking the free out of freelancing

There will always be unscrupulous individuals and businesses who try to get something for nothing. Perhaps it’s the “free” in the word “freelancer” that encourages their unreasonable requests. 

Yet it’s in your power as a freelance professional to say no. You get to choose if and when you will ever work for free. 

Sometimes it is a good idea to work pro bono, as we have highlighted in this article. However, this is usually always when you actively seek out these opportunities yourself.