When working for free can work for you

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Several years ago, I completed a design project free of charge for a non-profit organization, mainly to build up my portfolio.

It resulted in an expansion of my freelance business that I never expected.

I started to receive job after job from people who had seen my work— first volunteers for the organization, then their friends and family.

Then, new clients started calling in from across the country moving westward.

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

So how did I know which organization to work with, and why did I choose to work for free?

I found this organization advertised in a national magazine, so they were already gaining national recognition, yet they were just starting out.

By offering my services for free they were quick to promote my business on social media, word of mouth, and in articles and interviews.

The idea is this. People are willing to work with and pay a designer based on a good deed they did for a deserving person or organization.

And not one person asked for free work because this organization received it.

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In addition, the non-profit organization grew over the years and soon had enough money to hire me for other marketing work.

So my initial free services led to paying jobs from the same client.

They had already formed a relationship with me and didn’t need to shop around for other designers when the time came to hire.

Working for free can be a huge benefit to your business if it’s done in the right circumstances.

You should always weigh the benefits with the time and effort you would be putting into the project. Here are a few questions you can ask yourself before committing to free work.

1. Will it help promote my business in a way that will eventually lead to paying clients?

2. Will it lead to paying jobs with the same client in the future?

3. Will I gain recognition?

4. Will I gain a valuable testimony that I can use for promotion?

5. Will it be a worthy portfolio piece that’s unlike anything I already have?

6. Am I the only one getting this opportunity, or is it open to the public?

If you answer yes to just one of these questions, it could be a potentially valuable opportunity.

With that said, you can go ahead and cross these free work opportunities off your list, and here’s why.

1. Logo contest websites

Avoid large-scale international websites like LogoMyWay, as they typically have thousands of entrants for each contest.

There can be no rhyme or reason for the winners they choose, so it’s often a waste of time trying to decipher what the contests are seeking.

If you enjoy entering contests, you have a better shot at local contests targeted towards a smaller group of entrants.

2. Spec work

Spec work can be partially or fully completed work submitted to prospective clients to secure a job.

Typically, designers complete this work for free, lose all rights to this work, and then may never even land the job.

Never complete spec work without being compensated. You can always politely direct a potential client or employer to your online portfolio if they need to see work samples.

3. Companies that claim it’s a great opportunity for you

Be wary of companies that promise huge exposure from working with them, and what a benefit it would be to you.

Do your research before considering an organization that needs free work but has a huge client-base.

The two don’t normally go together (unless it’s a non-profit organization, and even then, most have money set aside for marketing purposes by the time their client-base has expanded).

What about friends and family?

You should determine your family pricing, friend pricing, and friend-of-a-friend pricing, increasing each amount respectively.

Remember, just because someone has heard of you through a friend doesn’t always mean they deserve a discount or free work.

It may sound cold-hearted, but that “small job” they promise will take no time at all usually turns into a full-blown job with revision after revision and a tight-deadline, taking your time and attention away from your paying clients.

Conclusion

There are a lot of benefits of doing free work, but make sure you take your time to analyze the situation before jumping into it.

And if you simply have the time and passion for doing free work, by all means design away!

But be sure to research the most deserving organizations or individuals. Free work for the sake of free work devalues our industry.

Did you have an opportunity to work for free and it worked in your favor? Or have you had a valuable learning experience from free work gone bad? Share your thoughts!

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About Brittany Klein

Brittany Klein is a freelance graphic designer located in central Maryland. She established her company, Radiant Resolution, in 2008 after receiving her Master of Arts degree in graphic design from Savannah College of Art & Design. You can view her portfolio and blog at RadiantResolution.com.

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Comments

  1. Riana Treshaun says:

    Thanks Brittany – great article!

  2. Kevin M says:

    I have two cases where working for free went bad. In fact I have one obligation I committed to that is a constant drain on resources and time because the client does not appreciate what i do for them and they continually want more. I had thought it might give me exposure and aside from the fact this non-profit needed professional help, I have seen zero return in the 8 years I have been supporting it. So it would be a safe bet to research the non-profit prior to making a commitment and it would also benefit from creating an agreement of sorts so that you don’t end up in a bad situation.