Working for free – some thoughts for those who get asked to do that, and for those who ask them to do that

A lawyer and a doctor who attended the same church got together for dinner once a week. One day, the doctor asked if he could bring up one thing that annoyed him.

“Absolutely,” the lawyer said, taking another bite of his steak.

“Almost every week at church, someone pulls me aside to ask for medical advice,” the doctor said. “They might ask me to evaluate a rash, or what medicine they should take for whatever ailment they have, or to diagnose the illness that plagued them all week.” He took a sip of his red wine. “This is how I make my living—I have a wife and kids to take care of, plus my student loans to pay for. I can’t just give my work away.”

“That used to happen to me all the time,” the lawyer said.

“Used to happen? How did you stop it?” the doctor quizzed.

“I started having my secretary send a bill on Monday morning to everyone who asked me for legal advice over the weekend,” the lawyer said. “It didn’t take long for the requests for free work to stop.”

“That’s a great idea,” the doctor said. “I’m going to start doing that.”

The next day, the doctor got a bill from the lawyer.

Recently, Tim Kreider, a writer and cartoonist, had a great piece in the New  York Times about being asked to work for free. It is problem familiar to creative professionals of all stripes, but Kreider’s approach lends a fresh perspective on the conundrum we face when other people ask us to volunteer.

“People who would consider it a bizarre breach of conduct to expect anyone to give them a haircut or a can of soda at no cost will ask you, with a straight face, and a clear conscience, whether you wouldn’t be willing to write an essay or draw an illustration for them for nothing,” he writes.

I recommend reading the rest of his article, which has some great considerations.

However, I have to halfway disagree with him.

Of course, that means I halfway agree with him.

How I agree with him: It is rude to expect someone to provide you with their professional services for free unless that person has a vested interest in providing that service. (Note: the vested interest must be theirs, not just yours.) I know of a family that regularly provided services for weddings, including cake decorating. This was their way of earning a living. But whenever someone in their church got married, the happy couple somehow expected these services to be free for them. Honoring such requests would have quickly left them without enough time to earn their livings. It was rude for anyone to have that expectation.

How I disagree with him: Not all value in the world is connected with cash. Although the promise of “exposure” will not feed a family, most of us should not write off the opportunity to contribute to something for free, or for a reduced cost, or for some compensation other than cash.

Here are some things to consider, whether you are asking someone to provide a creative service for free, or if you are on the receiving end of such a request:

Asking for free work

Know what you are asking for. When you solicit free work, you are asking people to share something very significant: time they could be spending with their family or friends, work that they could offer to a paying client, and expertise that they may have spent years to develop. Keep in mind that you are not asking for something light.

Build a relationship first. In most cases, you have no excuse to ask someone for free work unless you have an established relationship with that person. It is one thing to ask a good friend to help you move from one apartment to another. It is another thing to call up a stranger who works for a moving company and ask for free moving services.

Don’t take advantage. I believe it is generally unfair unjust to request free services from someone whose income is less than yours, or if you or your organization will make a profit off of the person’s work.

Ask someone who has an established interest in your cause.

Responding to free work requests

Consider the request. The person who has asked you for free work is a person, and most people behave in ways that are logical to them. It is worth considering, then whether this person’s request is logical. Would it really give you exposure that would be valuable? Would it contribute to a good cause?

Be prepared to give away some work. Let’s face it: Freebies are a significant part of the today’s economy. Just a few examples:

  • Some writers give away modified versions of their blog posts to other publications in exchange for a backlink, and sometimes they get many new readers this way.
  • I have seen lots of people give away design elements, such as website buttons, for free.
  • I have a WordPress plugin that is free and has had thousands of downloads, and it has helped me get some work. (It also has resulted in donations from people who never would have found me and paid me to do custom work on their sites.)

You can participate in the freebie economy with minimal effort by having something ready to give away (blog posts that you can adapt to be an article for someone who has requested a free article, for example).

Be careful. Don’t say yes too easily. Don’t let someone take advantage of you and making money off of work you do for free unless you want them to make money more than you want yourself to make money.


Those are just a few thoughts. How do you handle requests for free work? How do you wish those who ask for free work would handle their requests differently?