Would You Work For Free?

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When you're changing careers or trying to work freelance, getting a paying job is often difficult. For every paying gig that comes along, you're bound to be offered several jobs, ranging from simple to extremely complex, that don't offer any pay at all. Typically, these jobs are offered by start-up companies or non-profit organizations, but more and more frequently, larger companies are looking for people who are willing to work for free. Of course, they don't call it working for free – typically it's packaged as an opportunity to work for exposure or for the opportunity to have something to add to a resume or portfolio.


Although these jobs are traditionally in the fields of writing or graphic design, computer programers, coders and other professionals are also encountering these lucrative, work-for-free opportunities. But are the jobs worth the investment of time and energy, or are they simply the product of companies attempting to get something for nothing?


A recent article at The Atlantic delved into these controversial waters and discussed the reasons why someone would be willing to work for free, and why it's not always a bad idea. As a freelance writer myself, I have also been offered these “for exposure” opportunities. Although they certainly aren't always a scam, and many people find that they make sense for their situation, I can understand the reasons why a professional would choose not to work for little to no financial compensation.


When you are trying to establish yourself in a new career field or launch your freelance career, job experience, even experience that doesn't pay, can certainly help you find your next job. However, if you get the reputation as someone who works for free (or for very little), it can be tough to charge clients in the future. Before accepting a “work for exposure” gig, here are some things to think about:


Will the company be making money from your work? Personally, I would have a very hard time donating my work to a company that would be using my work to make money. However, if I were writing articles for a non-profit organization, I would consider my work to be volunteering. Before deciding if you're willing to work for free, take a look at the organization and find out if they are going to be profiting from your work – and if so, how much? If they will be making a great deal from it, there's no reason for you not to be compensated.


How much exposure will you be getting? Working for exposure can be a great idea, especially if your work will be getting a ton of exposure. For example, if Time Magazine asked me to write a short column about something I'm passionate about, and they weren't able to pay me, I would accept it. That sort of exposure is payment enough and being published in their magazine would be a huge addition to my professional portfolio. Before making a decision, find out exactly how much exposure you would be getting and what sort of difference that would make to your resume.


How big is the project? Doing a small job for no pay is a whole lot easier than an involved project. If the work is minimal and the rewards are modest, then it's completely reasonable to accept the job. However, if the company is asking you to do weeks worth of work for free, you might want to consider passing.


Where is the company headed? If you're being offered work by a start-up company, look at their business plan and where they are headed. For every successful internet start-up, there are hundreds of companies that aren't much more than a person with an idea for “the next Twitter.” If you don't think that the company is going to be successful, you probably don't want your name or your work involved with it. However, if you believe that they are really on to something, you could attempt to negotiate a small percentage or royalty fee when the company becomes successful. David Choe, a graffiti artist (featured in the above image) made almost $200 million for his work creating a mural for the Facebook office after the company went public. Because they weren't able to pay him at the time, he opted for a .25% of the company.


Can you afford to work for free? If you have a full-time job and have the time to do the work, then it can make sense to accept a work-for-free opportunity. For those who are trying to break into a new field and who want a chance to show off their skills, this could be the best way. In addition, these types of jobs are a great way to practice meeting deadlines and creating work for others. Although it can feel as though you're being taken advantage of, the experience can be worth more than cash.


Deciding whether a work-for-exposure opportunity is right for you is an extremely personal one. Don't allow outside pressure to influence your decision. People have been offering work for free since the beginning of time, (think editorials, street art, etc.) and it can be a chance to try out a new career.


Have you been asked to work for exposure? How did you feel about it? Please share your thoughts in the comments.


Image Source: DavidChoe.com


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  • Melissa Kennedy
    Melissa Kennedy
    Thanks for the great comments. Working for exposure is a tricky and controversial thing. @Steve W, I agree. Working for George Lucas for free would be an honor, and lots of people would be eager to do it. @Kathryn, volunteering is about making a difference, if it leads to a great job opportunity, it's just a bonus. @Garry, I am not advocating working for free. As a person who works in IT, I'm sure you've had these "work for exposure" job offers. Personally, I don't like the idea of working for free, but it's common. This post was about discussing the pros and cons. @Randy, your comment made me laugh. It's exactly what I was thinking right before I wrote this. I've had so many offers to work for free, so I know that many other people have had this experience (think non-paid internships). Part of me thought that I shouldn't talk about it, because it might give people ideas or it might seems as though I am condoning it. That's why I decided to write about it, because it's something many people have to decide. @Louis, many people who have taken the chance and worked for free have found full-time paying work as a result. It hasn't happened for me, but then again, I don't typically take that sort of chance. @Walter, no, I don't think I would. However, under the right circumstance, I might. It's a choice that each individual has to make for themselves.
  • Sonia R
    Sonia R
    I think is good idea per example I was cashier in my country and here I need experience working  it.
  • Uddhav H
    Uddhav H
    This is the great idea about connection of new career. This helps to everyone for sharing, caring, and empowering  to herself/himself as well as to encourage to others also.
  • Steve W
    Steve W
    Working for exposure is a hard sell since for $50 you can buy a lot of exposure on google or other advertising channels.  In my experience people offering only exposure in return for work lack the ability to provide exposure to the decision makers who can hire.  People capable of hiring you are too busy and well connected to spend their time listening and paying attention to people without even the money to pay for your work. If George Lucas asks me to work for exposure for free, I'll do it.  If my neighbor asks for a free start-up website, I'll say no.
  • Kathryn P
    Kathryn P
    I have volunteered my time and talent at a non-profit organization for over 3 years. It has gotten me a lot of exposure, has not brought me paid work. But that wasn't my goal. I wanted to find a way to help others, and this was my way of doing it. Would I do the same for a for-profit organization? Probably not.
  • Michael M
    Michael M
    Great Article
  • Sanjay D
    Sanjay D
    It works to get full time position.  It does not work to get full time position.  I have seen it someone getting paid work after 3 months of volunteering. In another case it did not work out even after 3-4 months of volunteer work.
  • Garry H
    Garry H
    Working for free.  Hmm... There used to be a name for that... SLAVERY.  It is bad enough that professionals in IT have to sit and listen to a hiring manager whine about how tough the economy is and why the multi-billion-dollar company just can't afford to pay a six-figure salary for a job that the U.S. Department of Labor statistics show PAYS a minimum of $100,000 per year in that area, or be pressured by the argument that the company can get the work done for less overseas and they are doing you a favor by hiring you at the lower rate, but now you are advocating allowing them to get away with making us work for nothing?  Let's put it into perspective.  "Doctor, I have a problem and have to have this lump removed from my chest"  "Yes, you do, that is cancer.  The surgery is gonna be about $15,000"  "Well, I can't pay you now, how about you do it for exposure" "A funeral will only cost you $7500"
  •  ashok k
    ashok k
    It is a good idea to write for free,well written.But I would like to write for free and for no reason.Or say just for the heck of it.Tell me the topic and i will write till my desire is saturated with writing.
  • Randy K
    Randy K
    Why did you write this?  If you want to work for free that is your business.  Why do you give employers ideas like this?If I work for free then I want groceries for free, a car for free, a house for free, are you nuts?????Keep to yourself
    Let's settle something to start. I need to look at "free" jobs throughh only one set of eyes- mine.  Who cares what the company's purpose is?  Not I. I need to step back objectively and determine whethre this is a good action for me to take.Decide yes or no- Then if it is yes find a "free" job that fits my passion. Yes, I said passion, most people decide upon their long range career goals. This is an awful reason. How many of us even work in the same field and type of position 20 years later? It is very few. Make a decision to follow your passion early in your life.  The job will follow.
  • William K
    William K
    Working pro bono forVIC of (Then) ChatsworthMeals on Wheels program made it possible to be available to deliver meals reliably so that the supervisor didn't have to endlessly sweatout having to seek "volunteers" from their own staff when too few volunteers were available.
  • D Dobbins
    D Dobbins
    I have volunteered my services for nonprofit organizations in illustration and design just because I love what I do. I have also worked for free when I needed the work experience in the beginning of my career knowing in the end I could use these companies and organizations as references. I would volunteer my services again just because of the love I have for my craft. Would I work for free for companies that are making money themselves? Absolutely not.
  • Louis H
    Louis H
    I've done this before which resulted in getting hired for a gig that lasted for  nearly 3 years.
  • jason g
    jason g
    Work for free, I am sure companies would love this and with today's economy I am sure it happens. My time, skills and efforts are worth at least money for compensation. This is a really dumb question. Anyone that will work for free deserves to be broke and living on the street. Work for free.. please!
  • Vinod M
    Vinod M
    Where can I get a list of such companies specially with location, to ensure that travel time is the least and via public transport
  • larry m
    larry m
    I agree with all your remarks. It is a sham that here in the valley there are people like myself, that would like to offer serves for a possible return. Where could I send my resume for review. I would be willing to  help start a outsource company that would offer resumes to those companies looking for experienced talent.
  • Lawrence D
    Lawrence D
    I believe that in this economy a person needs to have even a small paycheck coming in. To keep their mind on work instead of the worry of how they are going to keep gas in their car, so they can do their job. Companies are trying to get their product sold and if for some reason they do not like your results, you are fired and have wasted your time for someone who does not appreciate you or is just trying to get some thing for nothing
  • Ruth D
    Ruth D
    I have learned in my economics class that there are no free lunches.  A work-for exposure opportunity is not a bad idea, but needs to be examined closely.  
  • Simon M
    Simon M
    Are you insane? Work for free? Absolutely not. I have and would donate my time to charity. But work is paid employment - an agreed upon exchange in return for services rendered. Anything else is exploitation by blood sucking vampire parasites.
  • Terry M. B
    Terry M. B
    Insightful article! Gives you something to thank about if you are pondering a career change.  
  •  walter s
    walter s
    Would I work for free? would you? especially if you lost everything in this economy and evil Government!It is time I make money in my field and become happy again something most people will tell you they are not
  • Greg A
    Greg A
    Anyone who would work for free doesn't deserve a job.
  •  Rose C
    Rose C
    After 20 years as owner of real estate development and fulfillment companies with 30+ employees, strong IT skills and understanding of six sigma, I have difficulty having my skills seen as applicable to corporate world.  I would gladly work for free to demonstrate my capabililites and acquire 'legitimacy'

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