The surprising reason you should give work away

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How much work do you donate in a given year?

None?

Why not?

If you’re charging appropriately using value-based pricing, you can probably afford to donate at least one project annually to charity. Imagine what good could be done if every designer donated their services just once a year.

Sidenote: Once you finish, read how 4 freelancers built recurring revenue models that changed their business. You'll love it.

But that’s not why you should give work away.

So why should you give away something that puts food in your fridge and gas in your tank?

Because you love what you do.

You have a passion for good design. It makes you happy. It makes people around you happy. And it should make you even happier to be able to share that with those who deserve it but may not be able to pay for it.

Working with companies on a limited budget, especially print projects, builds your creative muscles, too! It’s easy to create a standout piece with a big budget, but working on a pittance makes you approach a project in a different way.

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And when you’re working for yourself, it’s important to have both pleasure and meaning in your work or you won’t want to keep at it very long.

Have a cool project you did with almost no budget?  Tell us about it in the comments!

Why working for free can actually benefit your business

Let’s look at (and dispel) some of the common myths for donating work:

  • You won’t make enough money
  • Giving work away drives prices down
  • People won’t value your work because they didn’t pay for it
  • You won’t be taken seriously

1. You won’t make enough money

Giving work away doesn’t mean you give all your work away.

When you take on paying work, charge appropriately so you have enough time to complete your pro bono project. If you’re undercharging, you won’t make enough even if you don’t work for free at all.

For more on pricing, check out:

2. Giving work away drives prices down

This may have been true before the internet made freelancing an occupation available to anyone on the planet with an internet connection. Today you’re competing with freelancers who can work for pennies because of their low cost of living.

In fact, you can use the global economy to your advantage! Here’s how:

3. People won’t value your work

There are tons of cash-strapped people out there who will kiss the ground you walk on if you do a great job on their free project. And even though they may not have the budget you’d like, chances are they have friends who do.

Seek out influential people, provide them with free work, and turn them into a human billboard.

4. You won’t be taken seriously

I’ve found the two most important things to making it as a freelancer are confidence and resilience.

If you conduct yourself as a professional, no matter how much you charge for your work, people will take you seriously.

Wondering what you might be missing? Read more here:

Final thoughts

We’re all in business to make money. Giving work away doesn’t mean you should relegate yourself to becoming the stereotypical starving artist.

But everyone needs a little help sometimes. Think about it: there’s probably at least one person in your past who helped you out at no charge, with no strings attached.

Why not return the favor and pay it forward?

You’ll be glad you did.

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About Sharon McElwee

Sharon McElwee helps creative businesses with blogging, email, copywriting and social media. She loves to partner with designers on web and print projects. You make beautiful things; don’t let them get ruined by ugly copy. Connect with her on Twitter.

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Comments

  1. Paul Trivilino says:

    A few years ago my wife “volunteered” me to work on a quarterly newsletter for our son’s school. I initially resented giving my work away for free. However, as I worked on the project, I came to realize two things:
    1. It gave me an opportunity to flex my creative muscles – The school allowed me to completely redesign the newsletter. The result was a 1000% improvement over the original “design” created by the school secretary. The new design was easier to read, and easier to find information. I don’t know if I would consider it a portfolio piece, but it was a huge improvement for the school.
    2. It was an opportunity for me to promote my services for free. Not only was I mentioned in the “Thank You” section of the newsletter, the school allowed me to include a business card-size ad in the newsletter. I received complements from several parents regarding the new look of the newsletter. I even picked up a couple paying jobs as a result. So don’t look down on pro bono work. You never know what may come from the experience.

    • Sharon Pettis McElwee says:

      Thanks for sharing your experience, Paul. I’ve found that there are tons of valid business reasons for giving work away, too. We’ve talked about it here in Millo.

  2. When I first launched my business I offered some services for free to specific target clients in exchange for their honest feedback and referrals. It worked really well, because I picked up experience and had testimonials to show for it, plus the clients were happy because they got a great service (or so their feedback says!).

    • Sharon Pettis McElwee says:

      I did a free discovery call with a coach and she gave me valuable insight into how to set up some of my operations. Thanks, Rosalind. This is very similar to the human billboard we’ve written about here.

  3. I often do work for free. For family and charities, the result has been a niche market for charity work where I am able to charge them for additional services and endorsements for numerous paying projects to boot. I am also a fan of trading for services. Being in this industry, creativity and passion at times take a back seat to skill and emerging technologies. An ability to work on a high profile/ visible project while sharpening my skills and abilities is an obvious win win. I wrote more about working for free and how it has changed my business for the better in my blog at http://www.calliopepresence.com/blog/2015/4/7/why-we-sometimes-work-for-free

    • Sharon Pettis McElwee says:

      Thanks, Danette. It’s nice to hear how other people incorporate free work to boost their business.

  4. Interesting article! I’ve never really thought about giving my work away as a charity item. Thanks for sharing this idea!

  5. I love the idea of working for free, I agree that it can be great for your business! However, after a few “free” projects went sideways, I no use the same contracts, policies etc. that I do for my paying clients. Boundaries are even more important in this case and they will help keep everyone on the same page. I’ve also heard of people sending invoices to these free clients, with the total of what it would have cost them for the service, and then with a Balance: $0 at the end, just to show them what the value is.

    • Sharon Pettis McElwee says:

      Thanks for sharing your insight, Megan. I think sending invoices is great, because you can use that invoice to reduce your tax liability.