Should You Work for Free? A Freelancer’s Perspective

should you work for free?

Should You Work for Free? A Freelancer’s Perspective

Have you ever been asked to work for free? Maybe it was a “friend” who wanted you to design a logo “for the exposure.” Or perhaps a company wanted some writing samples before considering you for paid work.

The notion of working for free is a touchy subject for freelancers. On the one hand, you need experience and portfolio pieces to attract clients. But on the other, your skills are valuable.

Where do you draw the line?

This post explores both sides of the “free work” debate through the lens of an experienced freelancer.

We’ll look at the common scenarios where free work comes up, the pros and cons, and how to make the best decision for your situation.

The Allure of Free Work

Why would any freelancer want to work for nothing? There are some compelling reasons:

Building Your Portfolio

When you’re first starting out, having a solid portfolio is crucial for landing paid gigs. Doing some free sample work can help fill those initial gaps.

Gaining Experience

In addition to portfolio pieces, free work allows you to practice important skills like meeting deadlines, communicating with clients, and handling revisions.

Exposure and Networking

Having your work showcased (even for free) puts your name out there. Free work can lead to paid opportunities or let you work with high-profile clients.

Personal Passion Projects

Sometimes you simply want to pursue a fun side project you care about, irrespective of money.

Testing Out a New Freelance Path

Free work reduces the risk if you’re considering transitioning to a new freelance field or service.

So in many ways, doing free work early on can be a savvy investment in your future paid freelance success. But there are also major drawbacks to consider.

When Free Work Makes Sense

Not all free work is created equal. In certain situations, taking on unpaid projects can make strategic sense:

Short-Term Volunteer Gigs

Doing pro-bono work for a good cause you care about can be personally fulfilling and help your local community.

Achieving a Passion Project

If you’ve dreamed of writing a children’s book or creating a photography exhibit, doing it for free allows you to prioritize your passion over profits.

Exercises, Tests, or Trials

It’s reasonable to complete a small, paid test project to demonstrate your abilities before landing a high-value contract.

Building Your Portfolio

When starting out, doing a few portfolio-boosting projects for little or no pay makes sense if it leads to bigger opportunities.

Providing Work Samples

Companies may ask for writing samples or design concepts to evaluate your skills before hiring you – this limited free work is defensible.

In each of these cases, a little unpaid work serves a clear purpose that can potentially elevate your career or personal goals.

The Drawbacks of Working for Free

While free work has its benefits, agreeing to it too often can seriously undermine your freelance business. Here are some major risks:

Undermining Your Value

Doing too much free work conditions clients to undervalue your skills and expect freebies. It sabotages your earning potential.

Scope Creep

Free projects have a tendency to balloon in scope beyond what was originally agreed. Clients keep asking for more since they’re not paying.

Wasted Time and Effort

You may spend many hours on a free gig, only for the client to take your work and hire someone else, leaving you empty-handed.

Burnout and Resentment

Pouring unpaid work on top of your normal workload is a recipe for burnout and growing resentment toward clients.

Encouraging Bad Clients

Clients who refuse to pay are displaying red flags of being difficult to work with. You’re better off avoiding these frustrating relationships.

Only for “Exposure”

Empty promises of “good exposure” rarely translate into real paid work. Clients dole out this excuse to take advantage.

While selective free work can be strategic, regularly agreeing to it puts your business on a problematic path. There are better ways to invest your time.

Alternatives to Free Work

Rather than working for free, consider pursuing lower-risk alternatives that still allow you to develop your skills:

Discounted Rates for Non-Profits

Instead of free work, offer substantial discounts to charitable organizations you want to support.

Paid Tests or Miniature Projects

Rather than fully free work, request a small paid test project to demonstrate your abilities.

Revenue Shares

For big projects, propose a rev-share model where you’ll get paid a % of profits instead of working completely for free.

Contests and Competition Entries

Look for legitimate paid contests in your field that award cash prizes for top entries.

Create Your Own Products

Writing an ebook, building WordPress themes/plugins, or producing digital products lets you control the efforts.

Kickstarter or Crowdfunding

Leverage your network or the crowdfunding community to fund your passion projects rather than working for free.

By considering these alternatives, you can gain experience without compromising your rates or the viability of your freelance business.

Setting Boundaries and Knowing Your Worth

At the end of the day, the decision to accept free work needs to make sense for your specific career goals and financial situation. It’s about setting appropriate boundaries while still strategically investing in your long-term success.

A key first step is knowing your worth and establishing a baseline rate for your services. With experience under your belt, there’s no reason to give away your work for free except in very limited circumstances.

Research other freelancers in your field and honor your own skills and time. When prospective clients push for free work, be prepared to respectfully stand your ground. Explain why you don’t work for free and counter by proposing a paid test project or discounted rate if appropriate.

You can also bake conditions into any free work – for example, accepting a single free revision or putting a firm cap on scope. This protects you from situations where free work spirals out of control.

The bottom line? A blanket policy of not working for free is wise for established freelancers. But carefully agreeing to limited free work that advances your strategic interests is sometimes worthwhile when you’re first starting out.


Should you work for free as a freelancer? Here’s the short answer:

Generally no, don’t work for free. Giving away too much free labor undermines your value and trains clients to undervalue your skills. It leads to scope creep and can attract bad clients.

But limited free work can make sense early on. When starting out or testing a new field, free work can help build your portfolio, gain experience, or snag a big client for exposure. Just be very selective.

Always have a strategy behind any free work. Don’t give away your skills for empty promises of “exposure.” Free work should be a means to a clear, defined end that boosts your paid opportunities.

Set boundaries and know your worth. Protect your time by capping free work, allowing just 1-2 free revisions, or ditching clients who endlessly expect freebies.

Consider paid alternatives. Look into revenue shares, crowdfunding, contests, or creating your own products as a way to get experience without working for zero pay.

Free work should be a temporary, calculated investment – not an ongoing way of operating your freelance business. With strategy and boundaries, selective free work can help launch your career. But be confident enough in your value to otherwise get paid for your skills!


Q: I’m a new freelancer and a company asked me to create a full branding package for their startup for free to get experience. Is this a good opportunity?

A: Probably not a good situation. Creating an entire branding package for free is a massive amount of work. While getting experience is wise early on, a reputable company should be willing to at least pay a small test fee to evaluate your skills first. I’d be wary of giving away that much unpaid work unless it’s a potentially huge portfolio piece for you.

Q: An organization I admire asked me to contribute a blog post for their website for free exposure. Should I do it?

A: This could make sense as a strategic move for the right exposure. But I’d first gauge how much promotion or visibility the post would truly receive. Make sure there are clear terms, like you retaining the rights to repurpose the content. If the exposure is meaningful, this could be worthwhile one-off free work.

Q: I’ve been freelancing for years and a former client keeps asking me to do little things for free, like tweaking an old design. How do I handle this?

A: You need to be direct but tactful in re-establishing the paid boundary. Something like:

“I’m happy to make those updates you requested. However, since doing unpaid work devalues my professional services, my policy is to charge a minimum $X project fee to ensure I can devote the proper time and focus. Please let me know if you’d like me to proceed with that small project fee or if you have any other questions!”

The key is making it a blanket policy you politely stick to rather than justifying it each time. You’ve earned the right to be paid after years of freelancing experience.

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