When should you work for free?

Kate Russell discusses how to manage the balance of taking on paid work and giving some of your time for free.

Given that my business will soon be 20 years old and the HR Headmistress is a fairly well-established brand, I have been surprised that on several occasions over the last year I have been expected by organisations or people to deliver my work either for free or at a fee that is not remotely representative of its value.

Please don’t get me wrong. I am not a money-grubbing wretch who will sell her own mother to make a buck. But I do good work. It takes me time, it draws on my knowledge, experience and (some would say) wit; if someone wants me to commit my time, it comes at a price.

This is what happened.

1. I was asked to give a talk at a conference. I have done this for the organisation before on a pro bono basis to show willing and the feedback clearly showed that my talk was well received and the value it delivered was highly rated. The next time they asked me they wanted me to spend all day there running workshops because they recognised how much value I brought to the previous conference. Not only was there no fee, they wouldn’t even pay travel expenses. So… no dice.

2. A trade magazine asked me to write regular monthly articles. Each article was 2,500 words long, came with a straitjacket of editorial requirement and took about two hours to write. There was a miniscule fee and it nowhere covered the cost of my time. Initially I did it for exposure and marketing opportunities. They kept saying how fantastic the articles were, but I noticed that any marketing elements were removed from the final published pieces. And when I found they expected me to cover VAT out of the tiny fee they paid, I opted out.

3. Most recently a personage who is very well known in the employment world asked for permission to reproduce one of my blogs (Hygiene Horror, October 19th) in his monthly magazine. He refused to consider payment and I suggested a couple of months’ membership of his ‘elite’ HR group as a quid pro quo. He refused that but offered me a couple of back copies of the magazine (I was a bit insulted by his shabbiness!). This is the Linda Evangelista of the employment world and he won’t set his little tippy toes outside his office for less than about £10,000 a day. It stank.

Value yourself and your work and make sure you’re not being a busy fool. But there are times when you should consider doing things for free.

  • If you’re helping out your favourite charity, then clearly you’re either giving a massive discount or working pro bono. We support a number of charities, one of which our team volunteers for. I take the view that not only is it good for the charity, it gives the team greater depth of knowledge of charities in general and this one in particular. It also gives the team a warm fuzzy feeling of supporting some really valuable work (it’s the excellent Medical Detection Dogs by the way).
  • In the early days of your business you may need to get experience to build up your skills, knowledge and reputation. In these circumstances you may well gain the necessary experience by giving away some freebies. I did lots of free talks when I first started out. That’s reasonable enough. Nobody knew me from Adam then. But when you have built valuable skills and a good reputation, it’s reasonable to expect to be paid.
  • Giving items for free makes sense when you’re creating a new product or service, as it enables you to test your products or services and remove any ‘bugs’.
  • Give something for free if you get some reciprocal value. If you ask for something that is easily do-able they will probably agree. For example, if you are doing a free workshop, ask to sell your products at the event or be introduced to event sponsors who may also want to hire you. Publicise your association working with this organisation on your website and in your newsletter. Ask the company to publicise it for you too, if appropriate.
  • Giving a freebie can encourage prospects to try your product with the hope they will buy or upgrade. This model of ‘freemium’ products is often used in technology and software companies.
  • Sometimes giving something away for free can be a way of taking price competition and turning it on its head. Instead of cutting the price of your service or product, include something else of value for free (especially if it’s something of value to your customer but of little monetary value to you). The cosmetics industry does this very well with their free-gift-with-purchase offers. Use this process to get people signed up early for an offer or to buy in multiples.

Only do work for free when it makes sense to do so. If you’re not going to get anything out of it, forget it. People who ask you to do things for free but won’t pay, give reciprocal benefit or publically recognise your work are trying to take advantage of your good nature.

Kate Russell is the managing director of Russell HR Consulting.

Kate Russell

Kate Russell

Kate Russell is founder of Russell HR Consulting.

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