The Age Old Payment Debate: Should You Ever Work for Free?

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Our mission as business owners is to make money. We send invoices and collect payments so we can keep our bills paid and mouth’s fed. But a n old payment debate I’ve always wondered about is to give away my product or services for free. In exchange, we’re offered something else of “value” for our troubles.

Here are things I’ve been offered to justify free labor:

  • A learning experience to put on my resume.
  • Promotion of my work to a person’s or publication’s followers, subscribers, etc.
  • The possibility of getting paid when the person actually has enough money.
  • Future business.

Determining the value of these offers and if they’re worth the effort is challenging.

Whether you should or shouldn’t do work for something other than money is highly debated. Some lean towards saying “no” more often than not.

Others believe free work is the easiest way to build a proper resume, portfolio, or crowd of raving fans.

In this post, we’ll explore types of free work, instances where it may be worthwhile, and others where you’re probably better off saying “no” or asking for payment instead.


Types of Work You Can Do for Free

All work you do without getting paid isn’t viewed the same. For the sake of brevity, I’ll generalize free work into three types: pro bono work, spec work, and bartering.

Pro Bono Work – Working pro bono is offering your services to a charity or cause. The best example of this is when lawyers represent a client who can’t afford them. You’re not simply doing free work. You’re donating your professional services. Expenses related to pro bono work may be tax deductible.

Spec Work – Spec work is most common in the design industry, but it can hold the same meaning for other areas as well. It’s when a business or person requests that you offer ideas or work as an unpaid test or trial. The client decides to offer you payment based on what you deliver.  

Bartering – Every other type of free work I lump into the bartering category because unpaid work (besides charity and spec work) is usually positioned in this way. You’re working in exchange for credibility, experience, publicity, testimonials, or something as small as dinner if you’re helping out a friend.

Payment Debate: When it’s Plausible to Do Work for Free

Doing work for free gets a bad rap, but there are situations where working for free can be a good move. You just need to find true value in it and be in a working relationship that’s mutually beneficial.

If You See Value in Altruism  

Pro bono work and volunteering are not fly by night experiences. You seek out an organization or cause and offer your time for the betterment of who you’re serving.

The value here instead of money is being fulfilled by giving. Doing this work shouldn’t significantly displace work that pays. After all, you need to make money.

But if you value a cause like saving stray cats, you may be inspired to help a local shelter with their website, print marketing, or bookkeeping.

If You See Value in an Opportunity

Although you may have to be patient, there can be value in working for free to build credibility or clout. This method is often talked down on because it’s hard to measure the benefit.

Also, business owners and freelancers can get caught up in habitually saying “yes” to bartering requests which stunts the growth of their business.

And to be frank, many people ask for free work promising you the world but really they’re just being cheap.

That said, the point I want to make here is to be careful of missing big opportunities because there’s no payment involved.

Here’s an example of why:

Charlamagne Tha God is a popular hip-hop radio personality, podcaster, and author from a very small town in South Carolina. He’s known for his “shock jock” interview style. Charlamagne co-hosts The Breakfast Club every weekday morning and has starred on MTV’s Girl Code, Guy Code, and Uncommon Sense.

In his newly released book, he credits co-hosting the Wendy Williams radio show way back in 2008 for helping him break into big market radio.

Before that, he’d been bouncing around to smaller stations in the south.

There was no money to pay him on the show, so he agreed to work with Wendy Williams for free for over a year. That opportunity ended up being a catalyst for his career.

Now, am I saying to work for free as long as he did or to give away your products like hot cakes?

No way, especially if you prefer to stay out of the poorhouse.

But you shouldn’t slam the door on all free work without carefully exploring where each path can lead.  

Just Say “No” or Ask for Payment

Let’s move on to situations where doing free work isn’t worth your time. Spec work makes the top of this list.

Why Spec Work is for the Birds

There are very few professions where clients or customers expect you to invest time serving them without any payment. This is essentially what spec work is.

You’re auditioning for a role and doing creative works for free. The prospect is also free to run off into the sunset using your work or a version of your work without compensating. This scenario devalues you and takes time away from money earning activities.

You may dabble in spec work to gain confidence in your abilities, but otherwise you should negotiate payment for everything you do.

Why Vetting Each Bartering Opportunity is Key

Charlamagne took a risk doing free work for so long. But he took a calculated one.

Wendy Williams was already well-known and being on her show introduced him to New York City airwaves. What she was giving him in the deal was highly valuable. Not every opportunity is.

I’ve found that the start-up scene in particular right now is where some service providers can get in trouble.

Some start-up founders with a huge vision need help but don’t quite have the wallet to back it up. So they’ll try to attract freelancers and other business owners with promises of equity, exposure, or money later when the business starts generating revenue.

Don’t get me wrong, some of them are successful and can later afford to pay folks. But a vast majority of them fail. Do your homework on the founders and operation before investing your time.

Similarly, non-profits, for-profits, and other peer business owners on a tight budget can suck you dry or try to guilt you into work.

You can measure the value of opportunities by asking yourself a few questions:

  • What will I gain from this experience that will make me money?
  • Who will I meet?
  • What is the best tangible outcome of this experience?
  • How long will it be before I see that tangible outcome and is it worth the time?
  • What will I learn?
  • In what ways will this experience further my mission?
  • What boundaries will I set to make sure I don’t get taken advantage of?

Final Word

There’s no right or wrong answer here. The best answer is to consider every request thoughtfully to avoid missing out on a game-changing opportunity.
If you’re not sure whether to charge in your situation, check out this fun site,, that has a nifty flowchart to help you decide.