At some point in your career, you’ve probably been faced with the question of whether to work for free, whether it was a volunteer gig with a non-profit or freelance work on a pro bono basis.
All of these opportunities can offer advantages, similar to internships. But there are also pitfalls to be aware of.
Let’s look at the most common reasons to work for free:
Build your resume / portfolio. If you’re just getting started in a new field, it’s important to get relevant experience for your resume, and work samples for your portfolio if applicable.
Expand your network. Networking is a key component of any successful job search, and volunteering is a great way to meet new people and show them what you can do.
Help others. Doing free work can be a way to help a friend or business contact, an organization you support, or your community as a whole. It feels good to help. Also, when you help people, they will want to help you.
Clearly, there are compelling reasons to work for free. However, I’ve seen too many situations in which a well-intentioned person agrees to work for free and emerges a frazzled, bitter, burnt-out mess—without gaining any real benefits.
Here are 8 points you should consider before you enter an arrangement to work for free.
1. Begin with the end in mind.
Be clear with the organization (and yourself) about what you need to get out of the deal to make it worth your while. Be very specific so there are no misunderstandings.
2. Provide an invoice.
If you’re providing pro bono services as a freelancer, give the organization an invoice showing what your services would normally cost, and subtracting that amount for a balance of $0. That way the organization understands the value of the services.
3. Choose an appropriate role for your experience level.
If you’re brand new to a field, it’s reasonable to volunteer as a worker bee as long as you’re gaining relevant experience and knowledge.
However, if you have experience and expertise in a field, and you want to do volunteer work to expand your network or give back, think twice before putting in long hours.
Rather than being a worker bee, could you serve in advisory capacity? The organization could recruit a college student to perform the grunt work, while you simply oversee the work being done.
4. Put the terms of the arrangement in writing.
This will ensure there are no misunderstandings.
5. Be certain the experience is directly relevant to your short-term or long-term goals.
If you don’t have an interest in what a particular organization does, serving as a volunteer simply because the opportunity is presented to you doesn’t make a lot of sense.
6. Decide whether your portfolio and resume are already robust enough.
Working for free is great when you’re first getting started, but you will reach a point when you have enough experience that it’s time to start getting paid for your labor.
7. Set parameters for the work you will be doing.
If it’s a freelance project, stipulate a specific scope, either based on the number of hours you will spend, or the specifications of the project—like designing a brochure that is no more than four pages, for example.
Also be sure to stipulate the timeline for project completion and any deadlines the organization needs to meet to get the project done on time.
Once you agree to work for free, the organization will often expect the same level of service you would provide to a paying client or employer. This can make your life difficult when you have paying clients or a job that need to take priority.
8. Put in just the right amount of effort.
Don’t take on a pro bono or volunteer project and then do a sloppy job because you’re preoccupied with work you’re getting paid to do. This will end up being worse than if you hadn’t done the project at all, because it affects your reputation.
On the other hand, don’t go overboard and strive for perfection if you have other, more important, things on your plate. Work that you consider good might be considered excellent by the organization.
Thanks Alan O’Rourke for the photo Flickr.