a peek inside the fishbowl

12 Dec, 2013

Why you should work for free

Posted by andrea tomkins in: The business of blogging

I will work for free. Sometimes. And here’s why I think you should too.

Last week I was invited to a special speaking engagement. Arlene Dickinson and Sir Terence Matthews were scheduled to speak at the Ottawa Convention Centre (the proceeds went to Big Brothers Big Sisters of Ottawa). It was a great morning. Both speakers were amazing in their own way, although it was Arlene’s story that really resonated with me. Maybe because she was a mother (of four kids), the kind of woman who starts with nothing and stumbles into success, who also worked very hard to earn some lucky breaks.

I won’t go into too much detail about their presentations, other than the fact that Sir Terence was adamant that perseverance is the number one trait of successful business people (“The word NO is just the first stage of a YES.”) but I mention them here because both of these extremely successful people worked for free – or very close to nothing – at some point in their lives.

Arlene worked for free at Venture Communications when it was a three-person shop that couldn’t even afford airfare to meet with potential clients. And in his very early days, Sir Matthews did the same. He paid his team in shares instead of a traditional paycheck. (If you know anything about him – and MITEL – you know this was a smart deal for many reasons.)

They worked hard, for next to nothing, and now look where they are.

Every once in a while a link to an article about working for free surfaces on the Internet. It gets passed around on Facebook and Twitter and it leaves the community all a’buzz for awhile… that is, until the next one surfaces. And then the process repeats itself.

The articles are almost always the same:

1) Working for free is bad.
2) Don’t ever work for free.
3) Would you ever ask a brain surgeon to work for free? No, well… DO NOT EVER WORK FOR FREE.

If those articles come around again, I’m just going to link back to this blog post instead of leaving lengthy comments on Facebook.

I am here to say, of course it’s best to get paid, but it’s ok – very ok – to work for free and/or give it away for nothing. And do note that I say this both as a writer and as an editor.

Some people get really upset about this whole idea of someone asking them to work for free. And I admit, I have been one of those people. HOW DARE THEY ASK ME TO (a) write a 800-word essay about [insert whatever topic here] for only a link in return (b) build a papier mâché dinosaur and post a video about it in exchange for MOVIE TICKETS (c) ask to pick my brain over coffee.

These are all real examples by the way.

It took me awhile, but I don’t get upset about it anymore. 99 per cent of these emails are deleted without a second thought. Why stew over them? It’s just a waste of energy. However, one percent of those emails give me pause, and might result in a response.

If the most valuable thing for a writer is a paycheck, the second thing is to get their name out there. You can be the best writer in the world, but if your work stays in the drawer of your bedside table you won’t ever be able to break out of obscurity.

I will consider working for free if:

  • I like and trust the person who is asking.
  • I have time, and doing the job won’t cause me undue stress.
  • I deem the project to be worth my time. Related: I am not paid for any of the conferences/TV appearances/interviews that I do for the Fishbowl for any of the other properties with which I am affiliated, but I do them because it’s worth it.
  • The project could further my career goals or open doors that might be beneficial to me in the long run. Here’s a real-life example. I did a stint as a guest blogger for Canadian Family Magazine back in 2009 for which I was not paid. Later on I pitched an article (for pay) and was accepted. What helped was that I had a relationship with the person to whom I was pitching. Later on I was offered a 9-month paid contract as a regular blogger. Was it worth the time I took to write and submit those initial guest posts? Yessir.

It’s always a good idea to know the parameters of the work you are being asked to do. If you’re being asked to do something for free, you have EXTRA incentive to ask questions about the task at hand and any expectations surrounding it. For example if it’s a blog post someone has asked you to write, find out if you are responsible for supplying or sourcing the photos, writing the captions, answering reader questions, sharing it on your own blog etc. If you have all the details going in you won’t be surprised later.

Whenever you say no, you close a door. So when an opportunity presents itself, whether it pays in a link back to your website or coupons for hot dogs or cold hard cash, before you say no, ask yourself, is this a door you want to close forever?

All that being said, I think there are some times when it’s not a good idea to work for free:

  • If it seems like the person who is asking you is taking advantage of you. It’s ok to meet someone who asks you to “pick your brain,” but if you get repeated requests it’s not really fair. If you’re feeling like you’re being used, the next time you’re invited for a brain-picking session tell them that you’re now charging a consultancy fee. And then tell them what that fee is.
  • If you couldn’t give a fig about the topic, even if you think it might lead to something down the way.
  • If you already have all the work you can handle. If spending time on a freebie is going to leave you drained for projects that pay real money, think hard about your potential involvement. Spreading yourself too thin doesn’t do anyone any favours.

What do you think? Have you ever been asked to work for free? Under what circumstances would you do it?

15 Responses to "Why you should work for free"

1 | Laurel

December 12th, 2013 at 8:22 am


Sometimes saying NO closes a door but sometimes one needs to close that door. I have worked for free in the past-earlier in my career but I didn’t feel like it was for free as I had determined a valuable pay-off for myself. Example, asking to write for a community newspaper to build up my post University published clips got my name out, my writing out and led to my own paid column and other paid freelance opportunities.
I say NO a lot more than I used to but sometimes it’s still difficult. Sometimes there is ego involved. For example, they asked ME and I know I can do a great job but they want me to do it for free—-I’m no longer in the place in my career where I have to work for free and instead, as you discuss, choose to for whatever reasons entice me. But ego is no longer one of them. I recently had to say NO to something kind of big. I would have been great in the role but it was going to take a lot of my time. Time that could be used to work on my own business and writing and there was no guarantee of anything and I’m at the point in my career where I don’t need to do this. I walked away. It was difficult but it set the stage for my business going forward.
I do attend and write about events in exchange for access, a coveted ticket and more at times but it is usually something I am already interested in or is good for exposure.
I see this as a form of payment also and I think that’s the key-finding the value for yourself when you are making this decision. I also find bartering a creative way to work with others in some cases.

2 | Charlene

December 12th, 2013 at 8:38 am


I’ve worked for free before with a grateful heart http://pinkcbsworld.wordpress.com/

(Its my link to post when people tell me to not to work for free)
I wasn’t asked to do it but make no mistake it was work and it was also the most personally rewarding thing I have ever used my professional skills for. I was privately criticized by two people in my industry for “under cutting the market”which made me sad for them as they missed the point.
Whether or not it will change my business in any way isn’t really quantifiable but that wasn’t my motivation. I got more out of it than extending my community profile or getting my name out there. And I would do it again in a heartbeat.

3 | DaniGirl

December 12th, 2013 at 8:41 am


Interesting. I pretty much agree with you – to work for free or not is a very personal decision, and it can work in your favour to do it when the circumstances merit. People like these arguments because they are polarizing, I think.

Case in point, I often offer my photos for free to my city councillor for various projects about Manotick. I do it because we have a pretty good relationship and I am always asked respectfully. There’s no real value in the “exposure” I get, even though they are careful to credit my work, but I am happy to help because I like them. On the other hand an MP asked me for a photo to use on their annual Christmas card. It would go to all the constituents with my name on it and I said, “I’m honoured you asked, the fee for a license for that use would be $$$.” (A very reasonable sum, FWIW.) They said they had no budget and I said forget it because a federal MP sure as heck has a budget for this kind of stuff. My decision may or may not have been informed by my personal politics on this one.

The problem as I see it is that the Internet has enabled an entire cottage industry of people looking for free content for their commercial endeavours. There has to be a lot more than just potential ‘exposure’ on the table for me to line your pockets. Another example is a recent conference I was asked to attend as a speaker in my day job capacity. I looked at the conference site and they were charging more than $1000 per participant for an agenda comprising nothing but civil servants who cannot accept any sort of remuneration. Pretty smart gig for the organizer, not so much for everyone who put hard hours into preparing and giving a presentation for free.

Clearly I have mixed (and many!) feelings on this one. In the end, it all comes down, as you said, to personal and informed choice.

4 | kev

December 12th, 2013 at 8:48 am


One of the things people don’t often talk about is how subjective value is. It’s personal, and usually the people saying “don’t work for nothing” are protecting their interests, not yours, and don’t realize/care that their version of “nothing” doesn’t apply. Not always, but almost all of the time.

There’s nothing wrong for working for something other than monetary compensation if you’re treating it as an investment. Be it experience, loss-leading on a future opportunity, donating time to an initiative you feel is worthy, etc., it doesn’t matter so long as you derive value from it.

The value of your time can only be determined by you, and that gives you tremendous freedom in using that value as you see fit. That’s also the only place I’ll use “free” in this context, because your time is always worth something. Nice post, Miss Fish.

5 | andrea tomkins

December 12th, 2013 at 8:53 am


Exactly! It’s a very personal decision and only the individual knows what their time is worth and whether they feel like they can make room in their life and in their heart for any particular project. But I also think we live in this culture of entitlement, and I can’t help but wonder how much of that feeds into the outrage that surrounds the idea of working for free.

It’s a tough issue. I mean, what about interns? You always hear about how much they are taken advantage of…

6 | kev

December 12th, 2013 at 9:40 am


The entitlement angle is a difficult one to address objectively, and it’s usually the incumbents who make the most noise. “You’re hurting the industry” is the rallying cry often made. Large organizations throw intellectual property lawyers and marketing departments at them, individuals denounce others in forums, we’ve seen it all.

Markets are ideally fluid, times change, technologies change and continually put people out of work (think of the poor gas lamp lighters… or bank tellers), but those same changes create a continual stream of opportunities. I think Canada is a great example of how a lack of competition actually hurts a market and its customers, and I’d rather see competition thrive. There will be bumps, but eventually there will be balance.

Ethical companies pay their interns, and hopefully the lawsuits and awareness being raised today will continue to erode unpaid internships that aren’t fully in the interns interests. It’s a really tough area, because many people taking those internships don’t feel they actually have a choice. It’s less about the control they have, and more about orgs taking advantage of a situation. I see the parallels, but I think it’s a very different thing, and it’s good to see the coverage this issue gets, the lawsuits that are springing up around it, and I hope the pendulum’s starting to swing.

7 | Valerie

December 12th, 2013 at 10:35 am


LOL at the paper maché dinosaur video in exchange for movie tickets! That one would be tempting, especially as my dd would love to do it if I suggested it! ;)

8 | DaniGirl

December 12th, 2013 at 10:56 am


I was stil thinking about this as I walked over to a meeting this morning – so perfectly captured here: http://shouldiworkforfree.com/

9 | Pamela

December 12th, 2013 at 11:25 am


I pretty much agree with everything you’ve written. I’ve worked for free, although it’s usually self-generated (volunteer) work. But that unpaid work that I undertook played a big part of securing me my current position, so that was an investment well worth it! I’m definitely at the point in my career where writing for “exposure” if not especially useful for me, however, if it’s something around a passion or an area in which I’m cultivating myself as an expert, then there could be some value to me (the article I wrote for Capital Parent about dog rescue is an example of that!).

Now as someone who occasionally asks for favours, I try to ensure that there’s value for everyone involved… but value to the individual in question because everyone has different motivations. It is also often within the context of a broader give and take relationship (our t20 relationship is an example of that!).

10 | Pamela

December 12th, 2013 at 11:27 am


I just want to add too though that I’m strongly against taking advantage of people by asking for free services when I am not sure that there’s a benefit to those individuals. Not cool.

11 | Brenda A

December 12th, 2013 at 1:21 pm


Musicians are forever being asked to play for free “to get exposure”. There are some great opportunities to volunteer for some orgs you believe in, but musicians are professionals who have spent years (and years…) on their work. They deserve to be paid (and well) and not be insulted.

12 | Jen Hughes

December 12th, 2013 at 11:20 pm


I agree completely that there are appropriate times to work for free, and appropriate ways to ask, as Dani says. It’s complicated.

I did a three-month unpaid internship between graduating and getting my first “real” job at a magazine. That’s just how it works in the journalism industry, although it sucks. However, those three months led to a job offer that led to my career. So was it worth it? Absolutely.

Nowadays, I have so little time to spare between raising three kids, a puppy, a freelance writing career, school council chair, etc etc. that working for free is hard to fathom. But I would certainly consider it for a good cause or something I found rewarding in a non-monetary way.

Would I write an article on one of my specialty topics for free, for a startup website? Probably not. I can get paid good money to do the same thing, for much greater exposure.

Good post, great points. :)

13 | andrea tomkins

December 14th, 2013 at 9:40 am


Thanks for your comments everyone! You’ve all made some really great points.

In my post I didn’t mention charitable work, and perhaps I should have. It is worthwhile and rewarding if you link up with a charity that is meaningful to you. And it’s good experience if you need some in a certain field.

Dani, I had to laugh at the site you mentioned. It’s a good one and I hadn’t seen it before. I did pause at the part about “exposure” … which is something I’ve balked at before and maybe even considered it “the most toxic line of bullshit anyone will ever feed you” (as the site says) but I’ve changed my tune somewhat. I think that if someone has achieved a certain level, it is BS. For example, if someone asks a very busy published author to contribute free work towards a for-profit endeavour I’d say that was a pretty lousy thing indeed.

As many have said above, it’s a personal thing. Pam, I like how you called it an investment. I think that’s a good way to look at it. Sometimes you have to GIVE before you GET. Right?

14 | Tracy

December 16th, 2013 at 10:01 am


Thank you for this post. I have read and re-read it. Such great advice. You are right – sometimes you have to give before you get.

15 | Bhel

December 22nd, 2013 at 9:08 pm


Interesting points. When I think of working for free, what comes more to mind is the issue of unpaid internships, and how they can be seen from both perspectives. People new to the workforce are eager to gain experience, and may be willing to work for free to gain industry experience, build networks, or are trying to set themselves up for future paid work. Though both sides may benefit, it is difficult to really decide if the intern is being taken advantage of, or being given an opportunity. There are some people that will not work for free, and those looking for interns can usually find someone else.

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The Obligatory Blurb

My name is Andrea and I live in the Westboro area of Ottawa with my husband Mark and our dog Piper who is kind of a big deal on Instagram. We also have two human daughters: Emma (20) and Sarah (18). During the day I work as a writer at The Royal Ottawa Mental Health Centre. I am a longtime Ottawa blogger and I've occupied this little corner of the WWW since 1999. The Fishbowl is my whiteboard, water cooler, and journal, all rolled into one. I'm passionate about healthy living, arts and culture, family travel, great gear, good food, and sharing the best of Ottawa for families. I also love vegetables, photography, gadgets, and great design.

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