Should you ever work for “free”?

Person walking on an empty landscape
Photo by Elaine Casap on Unsplash

In the creative industries, it’s very common to be asked to work for free.

This might happen for several reasons.

There might be such a small budget that nobody can get paid. Indeed there might be no budget at all. Perhaps it’s a personal project.

It might be that there is a small budget, but it’s being spent on resources and materials rather than labour.

And sometimes, the reasons are more sinister and it’s a matter of exploitation.

Whatever the reason, there are few easier ways to trigger creative professionals than to ask them to work for free without good reason.
However, I’m going to unpack this a bit further, as there are situations where working for free can be extremely valuable: and more valuable than working for money.‍

Let me begin by making one thing clear: in general terms, I believe it is wrong for commercial projects to rely on unpaid labour. And producers, creative directors and execs know very well that if they don’t pay people for commercial work, they may well end up on the wrong side of the law. Yet there is a very important distinction between ‘’working for free’’ and ‘’working for nothing’’:

“Working for free” means “working without financial compensation”. “Working for nothing” means“working for no net gain”.

In some cases, you might not be receiving financial reward, but you might gain something that is actually more valuable than cash: for example, an opportunity to get a big name in your portfolio, valuable exposure, or simply experience you otherwise wouldn’t have.

The key, therefore, is to be able to differentiate between situations where it is only right to receive payment, and situations where the amount you might expect to receive in payment is outweighed by the other benefits you receive by taking the gig.

Let’s say, for example, that you want to break into the film & TV industry. You have no experience, but you’ve been to film school and you’re hungry for some time on set. So you reach out to a friend who’s a film maker and ask if you can be a runner for her next production. Your friend already has enough runners, so there is no need to hire you (and pay you). And if she was in a position to hire you, she probably wouldn’t, as you have no experience.

After mulling things over, your friend agrees to let you be a runner for a day.

Now, are you going to insist that she pays you?

If so, you’re making the wrong move. The (small) amount of money you’d receive as a paid runner is massively outweighed by the experience you will gain. And she’s essentially doing you a favour by letting you come on set at all.

In this example, what you are performing is a transaction of favours: she lets you on set (favour), in return for you being a runner (favour- although it’s not a favour she asked for, so it’s arguably not really a favour in the truest sense of the word).

It’s also worth mentioning here that if your friend did pay you, it would change the dynamic of the transaction completely, put more pressure on you to perform, and take the focus away from what you need the most at the beginning of your career, which is experience.

Let’s take another example, from the world of comedy.

“Open mic” nights are events that allow anyone to go up on stage and perform material. They are unpaid and usually free to attend, or very cheap.

Audiences set their expectations accordingly. Sometimes the acts that go up on stage are seasoned pros — perhaps they want to try out new jokes — and sometimes they are complete noobies. Either way, it’s possible that the acts fall flat. That’s just par for the course with Open Mics.

For the acts, open mics are an opportunity to take risks with new jokes, which they can then carry over to their paid gigs. For the audience, it’s (hopefully) a cheap and entertaining night out. And for the venue, it’s a way to sell some drinks on an otherwise quiet night. It’s win-win.

In this scenario, it would make no sense to pay the acts, or to charge the audience regular ticket prices. The acts are allowed to take big risks, and the audience lower their expectations in return for a cheaper price of admission. There is a clear quid pro quo.

Therefore a comedian who insisted on being paid their regular fee to attend an open mic would probably be laughed off stage and they’d be missing the point of the whole thing.

When audiences hand over hard-earned cash to be entertained, however, on a regular comedy night, they expect to laugh their asses off, and if they don’t, they are probably going to be very disappointed. In this situation, the acts have to be paid fairly, because they are being given the responsibility of justifying the ticket price.

So how do you tell the difference between working-for-free-as-opportunity and working for nothing/exploitation?

In general, an unpaid gig is is probably not exploitation if:

-They would have no reason to hire you under ordinary circumstances, because you lack the experience or skills

-They don’t actually need you on the project (it wouldn’t be a problem if for whatever reason you can’t participate on the day)

-It’s a balanced exchange of favours or value

-It’s for a good cause you believe in

-You’re genuinely happy to do it for free anyway

In general, it is probably exploitation if:

-You would ordinarily expect to be paid for it, in identical or comparable circumstances. If it’s a commercial project in which you play a key role, you should be getting paid.

-You’re not getting paid and it would be problematic if you are somehow not able to participate

-The only justification they offer for not paying you is “we will credit you” or “this will be great experience for you” or “it will be good for your portfolio”.

-They tell you there is “no budget’’ but anyone with half a brain can see that there is one: it just doesn’t include your services!

-The main criteria for bringing you onboard is whether or not you will work for free, not how good you are

-You know that others doing a similar or identical role with similar responsibilities are getting paid

There are, of course, many many grey areas and I’m not going to spell out all the exceptions that may exist to the general principles above. I’ll mention just one: there are some situations where you might engage in voluntary work for NGOs, where they actually depend on volunteers, and you agree to work on a voluntary basis and then don’t show up. That’s not a cool move!

The key takeaway here is to be able to differentiate between situations where you can reasonably expect to receive cash, and those where the cash value is exceeded by the value of the experience or other non-monetary value.

So if you’re trying to decide whether to take the opportunity, here’s a rule of thumb:

Non monetary value of opportunity > monetary value if you were to get paid for it

How I have used this approach

When I first started out in photography, I was called up one afternoon by a magazine editor who needed some pictures for an interview with a government minister. Their regular shooter wasn’t available. I’d been looking to get a foot in the door with this publication and they needed a favour. I was still shooting film at the time (this was back in 2004) and they needed the images the next day. As I didn’t have a digital camera, I borrowed one and agreed to do the gig for free. I was very inexperienced, had hardly anything in my portfolio and not a single piece of commercial or magazine work to my name. This gig would, at the very least, change some of those facts. I decided to take the gamble that if I did a good job, the next time an opportunity came up, they’d call me.

I jumped in a cab and taught myself how to use the camera on the way to the shoot. I did the job, the client was happy, and lo and behold, a few months later they called me in for a paid gig: shooting an advertorial with BMW.

Note that my decision was based on my level of experience and ability to command a fee: both of which were close to zero at the time. I would not have made that call even six months later. But at the time, the value of that experience far exceeded the small fee I might have been able to ask for if I’d had more experience.

Fast-forwarding to the present, and I still do occasional bits of work for free. My reasons vary: some of which are set out below.

How this applies to more experienced professionals

Obviously, experienced professionals expect to be paid well for their good work. Everyone has bills, rent, mortgages and a need to eat.

But there are still some situations where you might decide to work for free. Here are a few of them:

-You want to develop new skills

-You need to refresh your skills or knowledge in a specific area

-You want an opportunity to take some risks you wouldn’t ordinarily feel comfortable with

-You want to do someone a favour

-It’s a good cause you believe in

-You recognise that if they were to pay you, it wouldn’t be worth as much as the non-monetary rewards

-Perhaps the non-monetary rewards are so great that you want to remove any of the potential friction created by the introduction of a fee negotiation (these situations are few and far between, but they may exist for some people)

-You don’t want, or need the money, but you do want the experience enough to remove the question of payment

So next time you’re asked to work for free, ask yourself whether it might be an opportunity to gain something more valuable than money.

Creative director, consultant, speaker and judo player. I write about business, lifestyle, technology, and philosophy.

Creative director, consultant, speaker and judo player. I write about business, lifestyle, technology, and philosophy.