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?


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