3 questions to ask yourself about working for free

Phoebe Dodds

Ah, the age-old question. It’s one that’s plagued writers, creatives and small business owners for a long time, and for which there’s no easy answer.

For some, working for free is an absolute no: it’s an issue of morality that connects many issues within the small business world, from sexism to elitism. Others argue that it’s a little too simplistic to say that we should always be paid for everything we do – yes, our time is valuable and we deserve to be rewarded appropriately, but the question is more nuanced.

Should you pay guests who appear on your podcast? They’re giving up their time and sharing their expertise, but the reality is that the majority of podcast creators just wouldn’t have the budget to pay guests. By that logic, should you be paying people who appear on a 15 minute Instagram Live with you? It’s all a bit complicated.

If you’re trying to figure out if you should say yes to an unpaid piece of work, here are 3 questions to ask yourself.

How does it fit into the bigger picture?

It’s very true that exposure doesn’t pay the bills, but sometimes, the right piece of unpaid work can open doors. I started out writing for the Huffington Post at 15, and also wrote an article for the Guardian a few years later – neither publication paid me. The thing is, having these names on my CV was a major help down the road, and no doubt played a part in me getting some great paid jobs in the future. While big publications probably have the budget to pay everyone (and they should if they’re able to!), you might decide that spending a few hours on an article for a major company is worth it for the future pay-off.

Who’s benefiting financially from my work?

Working for free is a very personal decision, and factors like how many other projects you’ve got on at the time, whether you can afford to work for free, and how much experience you’ve already got all play a role. When I’m faced with a situation in which I might work for free, I ask myself who’s benefiting financially from my contribution. Appearing on a podcast, for example, might cost me 2 or 3 hours of my time once you’ve factored in preparation and recording, but the host usually isn’t directly benefiting. If I’m asked to give a workshop or record a video series for free which is then being sold, it’s a different story altogether.

Can I build my portfolio in a different way?

We usually work for free because we want to build our portfolios, practise new skills, or get some exposure. I’m grateful for the years I spent writing for free, for publications like Thrive Global, For Working Ladies and The Huffington Post, because it meant I had a very full portfolio to share with potential clients once I started working for myself. I know this early unpaid experience had a major role to play down the line, and I don’t think I’d have been able to grow my portfolio without it. It’s worth noting I was writing regularly for years before I was paid enough to cover the bills – before that, I supplemented my income with everything from babysitting and working in a bagel cafe, to refereeing basketball and teaching high school students about the European Union. If you want to hone your skills, working for free can be a low stakes way to do that; I wrote my articles on long train journeys or during the evenings when I was babysitting so that it didn’t cut into my days.

That being said, there are a number of other ways to build experience and get exposure, specifically when it comes to writing:

  • Consider an article swap where you write a guest post for someone else’s blog, and they write for yours.
  • Write articles for your own publication, LinkedIn Article collection or Medium page.
  • Consider reaching out to charities and seeing if you can write for them pro-bono.
  • Contribute to community zines and publications whose values align with your own.

And as with all aspects of building your career, the most important ‘rule’ to follow is to do what feels right to you. That might change over time, and that’s totally fine too. If you’re looking for a community of like-minded women to share ideas with, Found & Flourish is here for you!

About the Author

Phoebe Dodds

Phoebe is Found & Flourish’s resident Business blogger, she is London-born and Frankfurt-, Paris- and Amsterdam-raised. Combining her Master’s degree in Entrepreneurship with 10 years writing for international publications, she’s the founder of BURO155 and Wellby, helping female entrepreneurs achieve their business goals through strategic online content. Phoebe is also a writer, and has written for outlets including the Huffington Post, the Guardian, the Next Web, For Working Ladies and Restless Magazine.

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