Are UnPaid Creative Projects Worth Doing? Here's How They Can Be

Are UnPaid Creative Projects Worth Doing? Here's How They Can Be

February 15, 2014 by

It’s an experience many creatives have suffered, particularly early in their careers – taking on a project that promises exposure rather than financial reward.

Often poorly defined and almost never accompanied by a written agreement, the nature of these projects allows the client to tweak, twist, turn, and change the scope of the project at their whim.

Eager to please, you work late, you work early, and you rush what needs to be done, increasing the chance of delivering poor quality work and heightening your stress levels.

And at the end of it, more often than not, there is little sign of much of the exposure you were promised. So, you learn from this mistake and vow never to work for free again.

But, isn’t that a little short sighted?

Even having suffered a couple of these experiences myself, I still argue that not all ‘free’ work should be rejected and jobs with no monetary reward have the potential to offer huge value.

Why would you work for free?

There are a few reasons why you might be interested in working for someone for free. For example:

  • Creating the ‘logo of tomorrow’ for a small tech company;
  • Working for a charity that matches your ethics;
  • Getting a foot in the door at a large corporation.

It seems a fair exchange. Your creative output paid for by exposure, credentials, or a sense of well-being.

Of course, many people will tell you not to do it and their argument is perfectly valid: by working for free you’re undermining the value of your work and others’ in your profession. If everyone worked for free, no-one would get paid. Logical, but I’m not talking about working for free, I’m talking about working for a gain.

Exposure, credentials, and well-being are all valuable gains.

Make sure it is worth it

Whether paid in cash or paid in kind, every project should be evaluated on:

  • The merit of the proposed gain;
  • Your ability to deliver the work;
  • The ability of your client to provide the gain.

Agree to a fair reward for your work

You are best placed to know what is a fair reward for your efforts, so consider what gain you want from a project before starting.

Exposure is the most common reward offered for ‘free’ work, ranging from recognition in a press release or tweet, to inclusion in a pitch team or a meeting with senior people in the business.

Whatever it is, agree it with your client - this is your payment. Get the agreement in writing and send an invoice upon completion, preferably one that states the financial cost of the work at a 100% discount.

This might not seem important (it is a ‘free’ project, why bother with the hassle?); however, you’re providing a service of value and expecting a return.

An invoice reiterates the value of your work, leaving a stronger, more memorable impression with the client and a sense of indebtedness too – while a written agreement provides a greater guarantee that your reward will be delivered.

What happens if the press release, tweet, or meeting doesn’t happen?

Whatever has only been agreed verbally is always in danger of being overlooked or overturned – by mistake or conspiracy.

Measure the outcome

Fast-forward and the work has been completed, signed for, delivered, and the reward from the client likewise. So what was your return? Did the tweet, appointment, or being involved in the pitch generate any real exposure?

These intangibles are always hard to measure, so set some intelligent targets; for instance measure the number of followers you gain from the client’s tweets, new contacts made in a meeting, or opportunities that arose from being on the pitch team.

If the target isn’t met or isn’t even close, perhaps similar work isn’t worth doing again – definitely not for the same client.

Ultimately the success of many creative projects to deliver a reward can hinge on you – the quality of your work and your own self-promotion. It can be tempting to fit projects where money isn’t the reward around those where it is.

Squeezing a project into your schedule can result in lower quality work, risking a good relationship with your client and potentially undermining the exposure or damaging the credentials you hoped to generate.

Maintain the highest quality, always

However paid for, it’s important that your work is of the highest quality. Scope out the project, reserve the appropriate amount of time for completion, and don’t deliver anything less than your usual high standards.

Once the project is delivered and the reward imminent, you need to plan how you will use your reward to it’s full effect.

Maximise your reward

Be well prepared for the meeting with your client’s senior managers. Encourage interest and interact in the client’s tweets by promoting them yourself, replying with a ‘thank you’, and highlighting to friends and other clients.

Credentials need promoting too – post links and images on your website, across social media, and use as an excuse to contact clients and prospects, both old and new.

Having the flexibility to take on projects where the return isn’t financial can be hugely liberating and rewarding, offering the opportunity to work with the brands, people, and companies that you admire.

Do you work for free? Tell us about your experiences in the comments below.

About the Author: Nik Speller

Nik is a freelance marketing and business development consultant, based in London. He writes on food and marketing.

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  • Alex Mathers

    Really like the tip about invoicing clients stating the work done, even for free work. Also, not allowing quality to dip, ever is important.

    One thing worth bearing in mind also, is to never be thought of as the ‘go to person’ for free work.

    People need to know that you expect something of value to you in return for the work you put in. Money is just currency, just like any other form of value you get from doing the work. Make it very clear to whoever you work with that you expect to be paid (just not in money this time!).

  • Stephen Ong

    I’ve created free work before for a UK publication with a fairly large circulation. A few jobs that were kind of fun but didn’t end up with any further work leads. I think maybe the exposure didn’t really work there, the exposure is only good if the right people are viewing the work, so keep the demographic of the clients audience in mind.

    If i’m quiet now I’d tend to create work for myself first as it’s a good break from clients. I’ve found having full control over a project is very rewarding. I’ve also found that I can generate more work leads from this so it works best for me.

    So maybe before working on a freebie throw up some ideas for yourself incase there’s anything really good up there! If embarking on free work be sure to think of the audience who will see the work and how much potential there is for further work leads. If you can bag a few paid jobs from a freebie then certainly no harm done!

  • Alex Mathers

    Thanks for the comment, Stephen. There’s no doubt that spending time on your craft through self-initiated projects is a very good thing. Vital even. This should be something everyone aims to do regularly whether work is coming in or not.

    That’s not to say that you can’t take on unpaid work if the rewards are significant enough, in exactly the same way as the rewards for working on personal projects can be significant if chosen well.

  • http://www.joremdesign.com/ Jorem

    One of my first commissions was done for free and it helped me to start freelancing because I worked on a project “with a name”. For those begginers who are asking if they should work for free or not, I’d recommend them that work for that kind of projects (a project with a name, a visible logo, website, some visible projects…) because with that your future clients will trust in your experience. They will see it as a “real experience”.

    Cheers,
    Jorem

  • Alex Mathers

    good advice, Jorem, thank you.

  • http://tellmesomething.org/ Dylan Wise

    My site and our contributors only do free work. We do this for a lot of the reasons above but mostly because we’re trying to build something from nothing. Its difficult in these early days for us to feel comfortable charging someone for something when we are just starting to figure it out ourselves. Our goal is to keep working on the site and building up our work so that we can point to it as a success and a reason to be trusted or hired. For now though it’s fun and freeish.

  • Alex Mathers

    Hi Dylan. Thanks for chiming in from the perspective of the job provider. Absolutely right that often the only way for new projects and companies to get started is to use free work. The key thing is that the owner knows and clarifies the value their workers are getting in return. Everything is win win, and there is no resentments or disputes down the line.

  • http://kimayres.co.uk/ Kim Ayres

    I’m a professional photographer and I don’t work for free, but I do plenty of work that doesn’t get paid in money. I will do work in exchange for publicity and promotion, sometimes as an investment in a potential future outcome, and sometimes I donate my skills to a cause I believe in.

    Obviously, the principle is the same as you’ve outlined above – but the key thing is not using the word “free”. By being absolutely clear what I am exchanging my time and effort for, it means I’m much less likely to end up fooling myself into poor decisions.

    It means I am making a conscious point of valuing my work. If I did anything for “free” then I’d be saying my work is not worth anything. But by being clear what I am exchanging my skills for, I maintain a full sense of value.

  • Alex Mathers

    Very nice point, Kim, thank you. I think dropping the word ‘free’ is a crucial element of making these kinds of deals work, whereby both parties recognise the real value that each stand to gain.

  • rsoxart

    If you can’t get paid in cash you could always get paid in burritos, that is, if you decide to do work for a mom ‘n’ pop mexican food restaurant. :P nice post btw

  • http://fuzzillustration.com/ Fuzz Grant

    Great point about still sending an invoice. I am going to instigate that one.
    When I am asked to work for free I do feel a little offended and I totally agree that it can be dangerous to the general value of our work. I have of course been caught in the trap where a “simple” free project snowballs into a massive job with little recognition. Makes you feel like total s**t. I have learned my lesson. Now I carefully select only worthwhile groups who I accept “free” jobs with and make sure there is some sort of barter situation. I have had so many bad experiences with”exposure” as a fair exchange so I ask for something more tangible.

  • http://www.moodgraphics.com Lina

    I’m also a professional photographer and I did and still do “free” work and it almost always was worth it. Often it’s not for companies, but simply going to events and shooting quality images which are beautiful and valuable for visitors and if possible afterwards tagging them via social media. I like doing this and I usually get some new clients after that or somebody recommends me to somebody else when they need photographer. And it’s fun for me to do. I think the main thing is to choose right what and why you do. I guess I would never accept if somebody else (company) asks me to do something for free or for “exposure” (it should be a really interesting project for me or REALLY giving lots of exposure in order to agree on this), but I tend to suggest “free” work myself for those client/causes where I want and see possibilities. For example if I want to change direction of my business and focus on a bit different niche I suggest unpaid work for high quality clients in this niche to get good portfolio pieces which later brings me credibility and more clients in this niche. From my experience people hire you to do the same what they have seen that you can do so good portfolio showing the work you want to do more of in the future is crucial and doing some free work in the beginning really gets things moving.

    Also when you initiate some “free” work you usually have much more freedom to do it the way you see fit and it also helps to create portfolio pieces that would showcase what you can do and it’s credible because it’s work for real companies. Paid clients work often has clear briefs and it’s not always how you would do this job if you would be allowed creative freedom.

  • Alex Mathers

    A really useful comment, Lina – thank you!