When Working for Free Pays Off & When It Doesn't

If you're lucky enough to have a full-time job in this economy, the thought of taking on additional unpaid work is probably about as appealing as submitting to an all-over body waxing and may seem as fruitless as trying to teach the Kardashians about modesty.

Chances are you're already working hard enough, right? But, if you're looking to improve your karma, build your portfolio, or grow your network, sometimes giving away a "free sample" or two can prove pretty profitable.

The following are some great reasons to do a little pro bono work:

Good Karma

I have a friend who's an incredibly talented graphic designer. She's also a busy mom who finds herself taking on a lot of projects to support her kids' schools. Additionally, she lends her talents to the not-for-profit Dress for Success. Her plate is pretty full and she'll often joke that 90 percent of the work she's doing is unpaid. But people adore this woman and truly value her time and effort. She's built up a ton of good karma and referrals often come her way because people recognize that she has a passion for what she does and she'll deliver an exceptional product even when there's no payment on the line.

Build Your Portfolio

Especially if you're trying to break into a new business, you're going to want samples of your work at the ready. My brother and sister-in-law recently started their own film and photography company. In order to have something to show potential clients, they shot hours of video at a country wedding on one of the hottest nights of the year. (See trailer and shameless plug below.) While it sounds pretty grueling, they now have an impressive product that will hopefully garner lots of interest.


Happily Ever After - Breelan and Todd from good evening pictures on Vimeo.
The premiere wedding video of Good Evening Pictures.

Figure Out Your Future

Ironically, another woman I know also decided to spend her spare time volunteering for Dress for Success (we live near the headquarters so maybe it's not so ironic) while she figured out her next career move. Her experience there assisting women in putting together ensembles that made them feel confident and comfortable as they re-enter the workforce inspired her to launch her own personal styling business. One year in, she's beyond thrilled with her decision and spreading her entrepreneurial wings every day.

Grow Your Network


I've been an unpaid contributor at The Muse for over a year now and not only have I had the privilege of being guided by some extremely talented editors, I've also made incredible connections who've been more than willing to introduce me to their connections. (Think back to that and-so-on-and-so-on commercial of the late '70s.) Just this week, I had dinner with the inimitable Susan RoAne, author of How to Work a Room, and personal branding expert Dorie Clark, author of Stand OutReinventing You, and Stand Out Networking. Both are charming and brilliant and I feel incredibly fortunate to have met them, and without this non-paying side gig, I probably never would have.  

Have a Chance Encounter

Much like the above, you never know who you might bump into when you're plugging along doing your thing for free. About a year ago, I wrote a post for this blog describing the insane amount of rejection I was experiencing in my job search. It reminded me of a decade ago when it seemed Newsweek took preemptory measures regarding my My Turn column submissions and began sending me rejection letters before I'd even sent them anything. Because I mentioned that this completely dashed my hopes of becoming the next Joel Stein, I Tweeted the piece at him, as they say, and he wrote back to me. The Joel Stein. 

To that end, Wine Library mogul and social media guru Gary Vaynerchuk wrote an excellent piece that was just shared on LinkedIn in which he discusses the value of the million tiny steps that lead to that one big leap. He writes: 
You might make a video with 89 views. But one of those viewers could be a producer at CNN. Undervaluing just that one view is a huge mistake.
I love that.

And now for the not-so-seemly side of working for nothing. As I mentioned a few posts ago, I've picked up some freelance work because I still have lay-off flashbacks that would frighten Walter White. Things were going along fine. I was writing articles for a set fee and a specified word count. 

Then, I was asked to write an outline for an article with the payment and word count TBD. Hmmm. I wasn't crazy about that idea, and as it was a subject I wasn't overly familiar with, I knew it would require quite a bit of research. But I did it -- only to be told the outline would be revised and I could submit it again at a later date. Huh? Still no word on the pay or even a kill fee should they choose not to run with this idea after all. 

Then, it happened again. As a show of good faith, I submitted an outline on yet another topic and this time received back not only revisions but an eight-page document I should use to inform my revised outline. In the words of Scooby Doo, "Rut-Roh!" I had to speak up. The woman commissioning the pieces was being paid by the hour whereas I was being paid by the piece, which previously hadn't included any of this back-and-forth outline business. 

When I mentioned that I couldn't afford to spend hours on outlines that would need revisions before even beginning the article, I was told the company would pay more for these pieces. But when I went out of town for a long weekend, the outlines I'd worked on  were assigned out as articles to other writers, rendering my work useless.

As annoyed as I am about the situation, I'm invoking the hilarious but used in the wrong era words of Downton Abbey's Mr. Bates and telling myself "Don't be such a big girl's blouse" about this. It's a good reminder that sometimes you pay a price while working for free. 

Subscribe to On the Balls of Our A$$es




Popular posts from this blog

Fresh Starts & Auto Parts

10 Things I’ll Miss When You Go Back to School (Insert Sarcasm Here)

A Reversal of Fortune