Should you ever work for free?


Should you ever work for free? It’s a question a lot of us are asking ourselves as more and more companies offer to pay us in “exposure.” And while the short answer is no, the long answer is a bit more complicated.

If you’re doing work, especially for a corporation, you deserve to get paid. However, there are circumstances where you won’t be getting money in exchange for labor, and that’s okay (at least sometimes).

I don’t get paid to write any of the content I post on my website (at least currently). And while tips are always nice, that’s not why I write. I write because I enjoy it and because writing is a muscle that needs to be used frequently so I can continue to improve my craft. And while I may not be making money off all the content I produce, no one else is making money off it either.

And that’s the question you should be asking yourself if you’re considering doing anything for free. There are always exceptions, charities or friends you might want to donate your skills or time to, but it’s a good rule of thumb.

When you’re not doing work out of the goodness of your heart, ask yourself: Is anyone directly (or indirectly) making money off my work? If I give a publication content for free, will they be making money? They might be making that money through ad revenue or subscription fees, but if there’s money being made, you deserve a cut of it.

And it’s possible you’ll ask for money, and a company will say no, but that means they shouldn’t get your work. Which is a hard thing to stick to, especially if they have a lot of power in your industry. There is a lot of self-doubt and fear of missing out associated with creating, especially professionally. The value of getting your work in front of the right people might see more important than a few extra dollars in your pocket, or it might seem like you aren’t good enough to get money for your work anyway, but believe me, you should be getting paid regardless. If someone wants your work, even just one publication, they want it because they see value in it and you should get money for it.

Not getting paid for work you’ve put a lot of time and energy into is not only insulting to you, but also devalues the work of other people trying to pursue a career in that field. Lots of people write in their free time, and may not consider the money they make from it as a source of income, but they still deserve to get paid, for themselves and for all the people who do rely on writing as a source of income.

If you don’t need the money you’d be offered for publication, that’s even more of a reason to demand payment anyway, because you have less to lose and giving away work for free is telling the world that people like you will continue to give them work for free, and that they can continue to not pay their contributors. And we all deserve to get paid.

That’s not to say that you should be doing everything with the expectation of getting paid, because that’s not healthy or realistic. By all means, have hobbies you enjoy and don’t feel the need to monetize them. You should also be practicing. Writing short stories, creating sketches, doing the things that make you better at your hobby or profession for free.

Some of the things we create simply aren’t marketable, weird pieces that are fun to make but might not ever translate into actual money. And you should still make those things, too, but just make sure no one else is benefiting off them if you’re not.

If you think people will enjoy something you’ve made, you can post it online or give it away for free, if you’d like, but don’t feel obligated to. I crochet a lot in my free time, and while I sell some of my pieces on Etsy, there’s not always a market for certain items. The act of creating something for the sake of creating it or trying out a new stitch or material is beneficial, though, so I often give away these pieces for free.

And that’s fine. If I give my friend a hat I’ve made I know they are enjoying it and not making money off it. But if that same friend took that hat and sold it on eBay, that would suck. If you knew a friend was going to do that, chances are you wouldn’t give them the hat or you’d at least stop and think before you did. The same should go for companies. If you know a company is going to be making money off your work and they aren’t willing to pay you for it, stop and think before you give it to them.

Because the second someone starts making money off your work, is the second you should stop working for free.

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