Web Working for Free: When We Should Do It and When We Shouldn't


“Web workers needed. Unfortunately, we can’t pay right now. However, you’ll get loads of exposure …”

Sound familiar? It’s likely that all web workers have encountered ads like that. I know I have. In fact, I’ve even answered some of them – with both excellent and disastrous results. Is working for free worth it? Where’s the line between pro bono work and being a complete doormat?

To me, there are two simple conditions that make me consider taking on a free project:

If it’s a passion project. I’ve mentioned passion projects before, and basically these types of projects are your way of giving back – whether it’s to a cause you believe in or just to work on a personal project without thinking about money. These types of projects can be fulfilling, so they’re much needed in a web worker’s life.

If you get something non-monetary in return. Even if no compensation is initially mentioned, you can also request for something in return. I usually ask for something simple such as a testimonial, referrals, or some backlinks. When I did my school’s website, I got a tuition discount. On some occasions, I get some products for free. Other things you can ask for include a “thank you” note for your bragging wall or that the organization mentions you and your services in a press release.

Just make sure that whatever you’re getting in return is worth the time you’ll be clocking in.

When not to do it.

Although the above reasons are good enough for me to take on a free project, there are certain things I watch out for. After all, something that you intended as a passion project or pro bono work can easily turn into a feast for opportunists. These are the conditions that should prevent us from taking on free projects:

If it’s overly time consuming. I’ve always believed that time was worth much more than money. If you think you’ll spend more time on this free project instead of your paying projects and your life goals, then it’s likely you won’t be getting much from this.

If you’re doing it only for the ‘exposure’. Oftentimes, you’ll find ads from organizations or individuals asking you to work for free and the only thing you get in return is something to add to your folio or ‘exposure’. Honestly, you’ll get more exposure from marketing your own work the guerilla way rather than spending those hours working for free for exposure that may or may not arrive. Usually, the clients that can get you real, profitable exposure are the ones who are willing to pay top-dollar for your work.

If they will be making money off of your work. It doesn’t make sense to work for free if your ‘client’ will be making money from your finished product. This includes placing advertising or affiliate links on your free site design or next to that free content you’ll be writing. Working for free on something that will be profitable equates to subsidizing that free client’s business yourself.

If you need to shell out some money yourself. Unless you’re doing pro bono work for a charity or non-profit organization (and even then, most of those organizations have funding), there’s no reason why you should have to shoulder any project expenses.

If you have doubts. If you’re not 100% willing to do something for free, then don’t do it. It’s that simple. Having the slightest hint of doubt usually means you’ll kick yourself later if and when the project goes wrong.

For me, there are definitely more reasons why we should avoid to work for free compared to the reasons why we shouldn’t. In other words, a free project has to be a completely fulfilling learning experience where neither party feels abused or taken advantage of. Otherwise, we’re showing other web workers that it’s okay to sell themselves short – or, in this case, sell themselves for nothing at all.

Have you ever worked for free? Why or why not?



I don’t do free web or print work unless there’s something new that I’d really like to learn from the experience, or I get a free or discounted service in return.

I’ve even done work for non-profits that I really admired and took far too much abuse.

Marcin Grodzicki

Also, if you make something for free, especially if you are supporting a cause important for you, make sure you’ll have enough time for it. It’s really stressful if your ‘free’ work gets in the way of ‘paid’ work, as you have to make some difficult choices then.

Jeremiah Staes

Have to agree with Tom – some folks have forgotten what time is worth.

I get those “Exposure” calls all the time, amazingly, from other established agencies who want interactive because they don’t have the skills in-house and don’t feel web people are “worth more than minimum wage”; and I always politely decline and highlight the fact that we are professionals whom for which this is our career and livelihood.

We learned a long time ago “if-come” work is a scam; and unless someone is willing to pay money for a project it’s not worth anything to them and move on and don’t waste your time.

Toni Marie

Oh wow, do I get myself into this mess all the time! I love to do things for people and make them happy, and it always is more work than it’s worth in “exposure”. Lately we’ve even used contracts and charged partial value of the work, but it doesn’t seem to prevent the misunderstandings and the extra unpaid work.

My answer to some of the “pro bono” stuff taking up too much of your time is to fill out a contract valuing the time, and including the hours involved in the work, and then specifically saying “in lieu of payment” and saying we consider that a donation.

That way the number of hours and scope of work are clearly defined, as is the “additional hours” rate. We still end up doing the extra work, but at least people know the value of what we’re giving them for free and they appreciate it a bit more.

Tom Chandler/Copywriter Underground

There’s a disturbing tendency on the Internet to expect creative folks (writers, musicians, artists, programmers, etc) to work for free, as if dangling the mere promise of “exposure” was enough (I tell my copywriter students you can’t eat exposure).

It’s part of a larger trend, where creatives work as sharecroppers on sites where they receive little, but those owning the sites (like Bebo, Facebook, etc) receive much.

As a copywriter with 23 years of experience, I’m continually amazed by the number of emails I receive pitching “free” work in return for wholly nebulous returns – as if I owed somebody the content they need to make money.

Doing work for non-monetary compensation (free tuition is monetary compensation, BTW) almost never passes the sniff test, and I’d suggest creatives pass on that kind of work unless their heart is in the job (advocacy, etc).

Even then, you have to be careful; I’ve been involved in a handful of advocacy battles the past few years, and in most of the cases, I looked around the room at my “colleagues” in the battle, and all – save me – were being paid.

Jason Green

I volunteer my web development and pc troubleshooting skills to my local volunteer fire department. Since I’m not about to go running into a burning building, it’s the least I can do to help them out. I never charge for any time spent, but they cover all of their costs. (New computer, hosting, etc…) It allows me to polish my skills, and it’s my little way of participating in my community.

Dan Butcher

I’ve done free work for a church (a passion project, I guess) and for a friend launching a business. In both cases, it was (and continues to be) overly time-consuming.

What I learned from these experiences is that I need to set limits to the work I’m providing up front! In the case of the business site, I committed to do the work while I was between projects–I had the time to devote to free work. Unfortunately, the friend was very slow in getting stuff together for me, so that by the time she was ready, I was heavily committed in other projects, and so it was a major pain getting it done.

If I were to do this sort of thing again (and I’m not certain I would), I would say at the start, “I can do this work for you in the next 2 weeks, and it’s essential that I have all your photos and copy by this date. After 2 weeks, I’m committed to other projects and won’t be able to fit in your site anytime soon.”

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