I work for free (sometimes).

People are surprised to hear that I sometimes give away my time for free.

I’ve done pro bono work for charities and have entered into fun pitches where I worked in collaboration with web designers/programmers. I sketch for people, and have created some illustrations for select projects too.

No, I’m not bonkers. I just feel that the more I give, the more I receive. I do not think that giving my work away devalues what I do at all. Because when I give my work away for free, I think of it as a gift from me, to whomever the recipient may be.

You see, I am extremely lucky to have been on the receiving end of such generosity – either from friends or family members (I’m looking at you, V) – that I feel that the best I can do to give back is by paying it forward. If only to remind the world that the kindness of strangers is not just a myth. And that there is still hope for genuine warmth and generosity in spirit.

But how, you ask, is the best way to navigate these choppy waters?

Here’s a simple guideline that I subconsciously adhere to whenever I try to determine about giving away my work for free, and it’s something I share with those who ask:

1. Do it for yourself
This is top on my list – I give things away to improve. I wrote and sent short little articles to the local newspaper when I was a tween. I even drew pictures and sent them in (some of which, to my delight, got published!). I did it because it seemed fun at the time. While I never had publishers knocking on my door or monetary remunerations, writing helped me articulate things better, and when I drew I just know that it was so much fun.

I participated in a collaboration once, where a team of developers needed a logo to go along with a certain web application. I whipped one up and it was fun to see the whole team getting excited about it! It felt good to be able to contribute to a team environment – especially where I had no programming chops to offer – and I would do it again in an instant.

But here’s the thing. Some people assume that because you’re having fun, it should be reward enough. This is insulting on many levels (yes, they might have pointed out the obvious, but they don’t need to rub it in) but the point is that such behavior is condescending, rude; and should not be tolerated.

2. It’s for a good cause.
I raised my hand to help out a charity organization with a logo for their new fund-raining and awareness campaign. It felt good, I learned quite a few things along the way and it helped me build connections.

3. You like the person.
It’s super simple, this one. Maybe I’m too generous – but if I like someone and we clicked, I’m more inclined to say yes. Maybe I like their idea. Maybe I like their cause. But most probably, it’s because I want to show my support, especially to those who might not be able to afford what I am able to offer right there and then. I’ve also done barters with a few acquaintances, and instead of paying cash, we exchange things or services; which is tremendously helpful if the barter was out of a mutual need!

4. You have a bit of time to spare
Now, this one doesn’t happen very often (the part about me having time to spare), but instead of filling my time worrying about paying the bills, I’d rather have something to busy myself with (but only if point #1, #2 & #3 applies!) so maybe you might want to think about it from this perspective too.

So don’t worry about giving away your time and skills for free. You just might be surprised at what you’ll get back in return, especially when you least expect it.

Share with us: what would it take to give away your time and expertise for free?

{image courtesy of Widgets & Stone, of Brian Wleklinski. Read his interview why he took on a non-paying internship here.}

10 Replies to “I work for free (sometimes).”

  1. Jennifer says:

    Wow! Can’t believe you posted this right here and now… I’ve just finished a design for a sympathy card for free. It’s for a child and the person searching for a card is a very generous friend of mine. She couldn’t find anything nice at all so even though I didn’t have a lot of time I decided I really wanted to help her out…. And it felt good! Yes, she was willing to pay for it and no, I didn’t accept that. Sometimes it just feels good to give back! And I am a true believer of ‘what comes around, goes around”

  2. Joy says:

    Awesome! I have done things for free for the exact same reasons and my family thinks I am nuts. Having a balance is key, but I think doing certain things for free is awesome if the time and project is right! Thanks for posting this!

  3. katie says:

    Great article, here’s one more :

    – If i will learn a new skill or can practice something I’ve been learning. Eg right now I’m teaching myself calligraphy and may give away a few pieces as I want to get better before I sell it as a skill.

    Usually when I do free or cheap work I invoice like normal but apply a discount, so the recipient can see the actual value of what they’ve received. This means it doesn’t devalue the industry and they’re more likely to be more grateful 🙂

    1. thats a really good idea about the invoicing I might try that!


  4. Ellen says:

    Good post!
    For me to give away my time for free, it needs two things:
    1) I need to feel that I have a valuable contribution to make. If I feel I’m not good at something, why should people want it?
    2) I need to feel that I do have the time. I tend to panic aaaaall the time that I won’t fulfill all the duties and expectations and whatever.

  5. Jessica says:

    Hi Amy!
    So glad you brought this up! I think your work for free criteria is similar to a teacher I once had. He said there were three reasons for taking jobs (and this includes working for free too)

    1) Because it gets you somewhere professionally
    2) It’s for a cause you care deeply about or work you really want to do!
    3) It pays really well.

    He said it was always better if 2/3 reasons were met. That being said I’m always happy to barter or trade with friends. This is how I finally managed to get my new website done… I illustrated some recipes for my friend and she helped with my site. (and I feel totally great about that deal!)

    But for example, I got an email today where someone asked me to “collaborate” on a children’s book with them. It’s not someone I know at all. Through our brief correspondence I’ve gotten the impression they think it’s okay to ask an artist to give them work for free so they can try to get their book published. This just completely frustrates me! If it was for a family member or friend (different story)

    1) why would I choose to work for free? 2) typically when people submit book dummies they don’t have full finished illustrations, so this is basically a waste of my time…

    Do you have any advice for politely turning down this type of offer? I don’t want to be rude, but I also would like to get my point across so they don’t expect other artists to do work for free!

  6. Nikki says:

    I am often asked to work for free and I get really tired of it. Generally the people who ask me to work for free are serial offenders (friends and family). One thing the people who ask me to do this have in common is that they do not have kids and I do – they have no idea how little spare time I have and how little I fancy doing this in my free hours – I’d rather be reading a book or getting a good night’s sleep. People who do have kids realise my time is 100% taken up with working for money and minding children and that I also have to pay bills. Also, once I have done the free work and given up sleep and all spare time I have no money to reward myself with something like a new bike helmet or whatever I would buy if I had $100. I hate working for free.

    1. Just say no I do
      I just make it a rule not to work for family and friends even paid work. I find money aside that it strains relationships. When Im asked I just say sorry I cant do it Im too busy with paid work or I tell them that its a rule f mine through past experience that I dont do work for family and friends UNLESS I offer to (big difference here!)
      Im happy to help them find an alternative have no probs giving advice to help them find the right one. But that is it.

      You have to get tough……..try to see it as them taking support away from your family. Tell them you cant afford to do favours and freebies.


  7. Hi

    an interesting topic indeed and I deliberately do one major pro bono project every year. They vary in client and brief.
    What I have found over the years of pro bono work is that whilst we dont get paid money in the bank like regular work what we do get paid in terms of opportunity can certainly be connected to monetary gain in terms of experience therefore more employability or upskilling ability to take on new project areas.

    Pro bono work is definitely beneficial on all sides and I make it clear in the beginning to all parties involved that opportunity given can be payment enough for the work in return.

    In other words there are no freebies.

    I have found that this has lead me to gaining paid work from of my pb clients particularly the NGOs who when funding is available will turn to you to help them get the best value from the funds available.

    So being ethical can be integrated into the everyday it doesnt have to be over and above.

    Have a good day

    Helenb 🙂

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *