Should You Work For Free?

Should you work for free, should I work for free, work without pay, pro bono consulting

“Not only will this gig help you understand how things work in reality but it will boost your career” – it’s something that all of us have heard at some point in our life. Businesses expecting people to work without pay…but should you work for free? It’s a question we need to ask.

Usually this situation is more familiar amongst those who are recent graduates, who are just fresh out of university with no real experience on their resumés. Businesses know that, companies know that, and some of them take undue advantage of their vulnerabilities. They keep asking, “Do you have any work experience?”

Work Experience, working experience, do you have work experience

Many of these young workers trade their time and skills offering to work for free for experience. Is it good or bad – do we need to keep some things in mind?

In this blog post, I set out to lend my thoughts on the subject of doing work for free or pro bono work as it is also called.

Earlier on, when I started off developing websites, I had no portfolio to showcase. Newer potential clients demanded to see one and I had nothing on hand to offer. A classic chicken and egg case, if you may. So, I did what most people do - turn to family and friends to check if they wanted any websites made and how I can help them with it. A voice at the back of my head always chimed in: “Should I work for free to get experience?” But with nothing on my hands to bag a big enough project, I lugged around with that voice still wandering in my head.

After speaking with people around me, a friend of mine showed some interest. He had recently launched a business in office supplies and thought it will be a good idea to go online and create a nice web property. I agreed as it will help him display all the products that he'd be selling and it was 2018 (for God's sake, businesses should have a website!)

So after the usual back and forth on myriad things, the website finally started to take shape and I had it built within 2 weeks’ time. Great layout, great everything. My friend loved it and it made me feel good that I accomplished something. Never mind the voice still lurking in my head, still asking “should you work for free?” I ignored it, tried to scuffle it down – feeling proud of my very first project…

…Except that it had one problem - and a major one. The website did not have any content on it. It was full Lorem Ipsum (gibberish text to fill space). My friend was supposed to write the content and hand it over to me, so that I could utilize it on the website. I was given nothing - no photos, no text. Photos was not an issue as I had built the website using snaps commonly found online. But without text, how would one explain what the website is and what one's offering, right?

And that issue became a real pain in the back. I would be constantly after this guy to handover the text so that we could finally launch the website. But he'd have some excuses over another. Family, kids, work, you name it. Weeks quickly rolled into months and I kept getting frustrated by the minute. I had taken on this project in hope to add something on my portfolio and that hope was not met. It pained me when I thought about the whole thing, I felt utilized and even stupid that I invested my time and resources on something that is utterly unusable.

Then one day feeling very dejected, I simply took that website down. I had enough of the circus.

Frustrated person at work, Should you work for free, should I work for free
I was frustrated like this guy!

Once my friend realized what had happened, he started calling me multiple times a day to check if I could get the site up again and that he's "working on the text matter". I knew he wasn’t serious about it, so I ignored it. And to this day, he seems to be still "working on the matter" and the site is somewhere in some folder gathering dust - acknowledging its fate that it will never be public again.

Now, why did I share this experience? Well, for starters, to let people know and realize that working for free comes with such shares of painful experiences. You may end up working and investing your time, chasing a project that doesn't come to fruition.

I was foolish to not set up benchmarks in place. In reminiscence, I should've had developed a part of the website and asked for the text matter to fill that block. Then move on to another section of the site and asked for text matter for that block and so on. This would have ensured that I was getting the matter for the site I am building. Unfortunately, I did not foresee it and my amateurish self was too excited to have the site built pronto.

Do not let you friends and family or anybody use you in a disrespectful way. We tend to overlook issues and have a very casual attitude when it comes to working with our close connections. Do not let your relationship become an impediment for quality work. I would go on to say to be firmer with them, not the other way around. It is important that you have your self-respect and not trade that for anybody, however close they are to you.

Should you work for free?

It’s a question that only you can answer. Are you willing to have a trade-off? Are you willing to spend your time and resources on something that will not pay you back financially? I did not share my experience to discourage people away from working pro bono. Everybody needs a start and most of the time; it will lead you to a path where you won't be paid initially. That's okay. What is not okay is to be foolish (like I had been) and not have checks and balances in place. Working for free does come with its challenges but if you work intelligently, you will also reap its benefits later on.

You need to ask yourself if the work will indeed give you some headway to where your goal is. You will find plenty of people offering you ‘exposure’ but is it really? Devoting your precious time and utilizing the skills that you have, to whip up some very cool graphics and photos will do wonders for the business using you, but what’s in store for you? Will your work be recognized by a lot of people? If yes, then I’d say it’s a good trade-off. If your free work launches your career, I’d say it’s a good trade-off. If your free work is for a big online name with millions of visitors who’d scour your profile to know who you are, I’d say that’s a great trade-off.

Working gratuitously will come with its trade-offs that you will have to weigh and be comfortable about. So, should you work for free? It’s a decision you have to make. Though, working like that is ill-advised, keep that as a last resort when nothing is coming your way. At least try to charge something for your service...however peanuts the amount may be. After all, the cliche "Something is better than nothing" still holds true.

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