Should you work for free?

Originally published at:


Fry: You know what the worst thing about being a slave is? They make you work all day but they don’t pay you or let you go.
Leela: That’s the only thing about being a slave.


Well hobbies can involve plenty of work. We used to say “It’s a good thing we’re doing this for free, because they couldn’t pay me enough to do this.”



The Department of Justice is recruiting unpaid attorney positions…


'No, I will not fix your computer."

For friends or family? ----> have they shown a tendency to exploit you?
          |             Yes          |                   |
        No|                          | No                | Yes
          |                          v                   V
          |                   [ oh all right ]      [ no way ]
For an immaterial gain? ----> do you think it is worth the effort?
          |             Yes         |                   |
        No|                         | Yes               | No
          |                         v                   v
          |                can you afford it? -------> [ screw this ]
          |                         |            No
          |                         | Yes
          v                         v
Are you masochistic? -----> [ have fun... ]
          |           Yes
       No |
[ take this job and shove it ]

All well and good to say, but for some things people do that looks like work, there aren’t exactly any sources of revenue. Who’s going to pay me for the random day-to-day blogging I do?


I’ve done lots of work for indie (and non-indie) musicians and artists, and they’re perpetually broke.

My experience has been that ongoing relationships that pay me in free backstage passes and concert tickets, tour swag, dinners, drinks, and enthusiastic recommendations to other musicians – and, yes, exposure – has been more lucrative than small amounts of cash money.

But working for free free? Naw.


There is something else. It is difficult to explain, but my feeling is that there was a subtle change in the perception of work done for free some time ago ( a long time ago, in the 80s-90s maybe).
It used to be that people accepted to work for free so as to demonstrate that they were capable of doing that particular job. For example, an artist would build a portfolio of a few projects to show what kind of work they were capable of.
Today, if you work for free, you just demonstrate that you are gullible.

As I said, it is nothing I can prove, but my feeling is that there was a change at some point. I am not sure which. Something else which goes in the same direction, I don’t remember that in the 70s anybody expected illustrations to be free. Nowadays, plenty of people do not even budget for it when they publish a book or a leaflet, etc…


Blogging and social sites, google (youtube), facebook, tweeter are dependent on a continuous stream of free content to display their advertisements and they have organised the Internet to suit this purpose. So: no, nobody is going to pay you for your blogs.

In photography, which I follow more closely, bloggers can get paid by more or less obvious advertisements (when they have enough followers) and organise workshops. It is a low-pay job, usually.

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Tip jar? Ad sense?


Part of the perception problem is that there’s an abundance of “talent”, so they expect their designs to be cheap or free because of market competition. “You want how much for a website? Never mind i’ll hold out for the next desperate starving designer/artist”. This kind of problem i presume happens with actors and musicians as well.

Unless it a volunteer gig for something you want to support the answer is NO.


I am a consultant in a highly-rarified field (like, only about a dozen folks at my level nationwide). Earlier this year during a conference call I demo’ed my financial planning model for a client whose model was built like a house of cards. At the end of the call she asked me to “send her” the model template. When I demurred and offered to assemble a project proposal (at cost) to execute a version specific to her multi-million dollar project, she became indignant and fled to another consultant in the field. He is a friend and has been working with her for months. I don’t regret that loss one bit, but I think he does.


I am not sure that this is the explanation. There always was talent. You do not have more people drawing or playing music today than in the 70s, I think. Yet something has changed, I am just not really sure what.

That is a striking example of what I am not really sure how to explain. It is a bit as if that woman believed she was entitled to your free work. When you refused, she acted as if you had taken something from her. In truth, you refused that she took money out of your wallet, but I am pretty sure she perceived it completely differently.


toiling for free enables coercive relationships

do not work for free


I think there’s more people doing it these days, just not everyone is doing it in a professional capacity. The tools of the trade have become more available and easier to use, hell these days i don’t even need photoshop i can do all of my drawing and editing straight on my browser or use open source software. Same thing with musicians and actors. The barrier of entry has been lowered and it’s been more accessible to get into those professions, which is great but also makes it harder to get employers to fairly compensate people because they can just hold out for the next sucker.


Speaking as someone who teaches a portfolio preparation class there are much better ways to build a portfolio. You can include work you did as a student or an intern or include self-directed projects.

You can also do pro-bono work for worthy causes like local nonprofits, but in those cases I always advise you still track your hours and write up an invoice as if you were billing a client normally, then add “PRO-BONO/NO BALANCE DUE” below the total so the organization you donated your services to understands what your time was worth.

You can’t really expect other people to assign more monetary value to your services than you are willing assign to them yourself.