Data from a Simply Business survey reveals over 40% of freelancers have done work for free. That’s a significant number of freelancers providing time and expertise for no payment. There are times when working for free might benefit you in other ways, but it’s not always the case.

What a freelancer might offer for free

Deciding whether or not to waive your fee for a piece of freelance work is an entirely personal decision. It might be something that you never consider dipping your toes into. In some cases though, it can be a useful tool for attracting and retaining clients.

We’re not here to advise you one way or the other on this! Read on for common examples where not invoicing might actually pay off in the long run.

When working with a charity or not-for-profit organisation you care about

Maybe it’s a charity, a community project or even a small start-up that your friend is launching. Whatever it may be, if there’s a cause you want to gift your time and skills to, you can! Just make sure that you can realistically afford to.

When you’re trying to step over some competition

If you’re pitching for project against tough competitors, offering something for free might just help you pip them to the post.

It could be something as part of the project which your client sees as a value-added extra.

A bespoke copy of your portfolio

If you are in the process of tendering for a project or pitching a proposal, the client may ask you to provide a tailored version of your portfolio or showreel.

You might choose to do this at no extra cost, to show that you’re willing to go the extra mile to win work.

If you’re happy to help a client cut costs

If there’s a particular business or project you’d love to work with, but the client has a limited budget, you might consider doing some complimentary work.

Offering something for free demonstrates your enthusiasm, but in a way which acknowledges this is usually chargeable work.

What if I don’t want to work for free?

Producing work for free – no matter the rationale behind it – simply might not be for you. Nobody can force you into doing so.

If you’re still unsure, take a look at the examples below outlining when freelancers might want to avoid offering anything for free.

For clients that aren’t financially secure

Before working with a new client or customer, it’s always a good idea to do some background research on them first. Do some digging into who they are, how established they are, and how financially secure their business is.

There’s a difference between helping out a client with a limited budget, and making yourself vulnerable to customers with no intention of paying.

When the payment they offer for your efforts is “exposure”

In the world of freelance work, ‘exposure’ is almost a dirty word. Experience tells us this is a red flag when negotiating a deal.

Sadly, it’s very rare that the exposure they can offer is worth the work you put in. Of course, this isn’t always the case. There might be times this sort of mutual agreement works well – but keep your wits about you.

If it impacts other billable time, deadlines or cash flow

Only offer free work if you can honestly afford it, and it won’t compromise your paying customers. In some cases (see above about “it’ll be great exposure for you”) it might be worth the gamble as a larger launch pad.

Generally though, spending time on unpaid work shouldn’t mean missing other deadlines, unhappy clients, and a bad reputation.

When you aren’t comfortable with the rates on offer

There may very well be instances when lowering your costs is something you’re willing to negotiate. If so, this must be done on your terms.

Don’t succumb to forceful customers on free work or large discounts if this will have a detrimental impact on your income and mental health.

Deciding whether or not to offer complimentary work is an entirely personal decision, that only you can make. Only ever work for free if it’s your choice and it is something you’re happy and comfortable doing.

Never offer gratuitous services to a customer or client who is trying to force your hand. They’re probably not the kind of business you want to be working with anyway if they’re happy to take advantage of you as a freelancer. Sadly, they’re unlikely to turn into excellent customers later on.

We hope these tips help you navigate the tricky grey areas between what a freelancer should and shouldn’t offer for free. Negotiating with a client isn’t always plain-sailing but stand strong and ensure you’re not being taken advantage of.

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