How to decide when to work for free

High performers work for free.  The difference between working for free because you’re a loser and working for free because you’re a high performer is what you get from the deal.

People often ask me how to become a writer. The answer is to write for free. You won’t get paid for years. I wrote for decades before I saw any money from my writing.

Here’s how to decide if working for free is a good idea for you:

1. Can you reach your goal without working for free?
If you are aiming to do something that people don’t really like doing, then there is no point working for free. Whoever is hiring is grateful to have you. Child protective services, for example. It’s an impossibly difficult job—low pay, high stakes, and your hands are tied, even in some of the most difficult cases.

But you know how you can tell when it’s a job no one else wants? It’s really easy to get. If you are having trouble doing the work you want to do then it’s a pretty good bet that it’s not easy work to get.

All other jobs—the jobs that people genuinely want to have—are candidates for free labor.

2. Is there a path to payment?
People can bitch about unpaid internships and how illegal they areOr they should be. But in general, companies offer unpaid internships in fields where there is a clear path to payment and there is high competition to get on that path.

Often, if you are able to get an unpaid internship, or grossly underpaying internship, you are lucky. There are not a lot of sure things in the work world, but sometimes, employment after an unpaid internship is an almost-sure-thing because the internship is so prestigious.

Proofreading at the New Yorker, for example. Or clerking for a judge.

When I first met Melissa, she was working for National Geographic as a photographer, and she offered to take photos of my kids, for free, for my blog. (There’s one of her photos at the top of this post.) She could see — way before I could, actually — that her photos published on my blog would lead to tons of freelance work for her taking photos of other peoples’ kids.

3. Are you making a good connection for your network?
Some people are magnets for opportunity and success. These are people who are known for taking someone under their wing and helping them fly. These people have great ideas and great connections to make those ideas happen.

Often, working for free with someone like this enables you to have a long-term connection with this person so that years after you are the underpaid underling, you can come back to get real help and real money because you made a real contribution to the person when you worked with them.

Don’t kid yourself—people who are well connected get offers every day from people who will work for free. It’s a trick to sift through these offers to figure out who will be a pain and who will be helpful.

Also, when it comes to offering to work for someone who can do a lot for you, figure out a project you can do that will immediately benefit that person, and if you do a good job, they are likely to pay you for the next one—or recommend that someone else pay you. Either way, you’ll get paid.

4. Are you building your resume?
Justin Kan points out, on TechCrunch, that one of the best ways to get a job you are not qualified for is to just make something that is related, so that you are qualified. It’s working for free, for sure, but it’s building your resume, whether the thing you make is successful or not.

Do you know the biggest mistake people make when they work for free? They don’t know how to translate it onto their resume. Work experience is useless when it comes to getting you your next job unless you can translate that experience onto your resume.

So when you start working for free, you need to have a very clear idea of how you are going to describe this work in your resume.  Loft Resumes has a great explanation of how hiring works: There are two piles—save and toss—and the reader spends 30 seconds, tops, looking at your resume to make the decision. You need to format your resume so the hiring manger sees your did-it-for-free experience right up front. That’s how the work will pay off, by getting the next job.

Often people hire a professional resume writer to format their resume to achieve this goal, but if you don’t want to pay that much money, Loft Resumes is good at helping you format your resume to draw attention to the right thing during those thirty seconds.

5. Are you getting to try something new?
Working for free never ends. Even when you are at the top of your field, you will find opportunities to work for free, or nearly free.

Lately, I am doing that with my writing. I don’t write a lot about the nuts and bolts of startups on this blog because I think that often, the topic is too specialized.

So I am writing about startups for Venture Beat, which is a great outlet for startup news. Here’s the link to my first article. Maybe you will like the topic. But even if not, the article might inspire you to find your own best bet for being underpaid. Because unpaid work for personal growth is a good idea no matter where you are in your career.

Posted in Finding a career, Networking
46 comments on “How to decide when to work for free
  1. Jen says:

    In my experience, working for free just allows people to expect to walk all over you in the future. No good things have ever happened for me by working for free (or anyone else I know for that matter). I can imagine situations in which it would work out well, but I’ve never seen it really happen that way.

    • sandyb says:

      Interesting point, but couldn’t disagree more. Detecting what projects will lead to better, bigger opportunities is part of the game. Consider it giving people (the right people, of course) a taste of your work before they invest. Because eventually they do. I’ve always found that investing my time in the right people and the right project always pays-off big over time. Just my two cents.

      -sandy.

  2. Mosaicmuse says:

    Interesting post…I had the opportunity to work for free within my field – even though the people where “new” in the field and I had several years experience. I decided against it because in the end, I thought it was strange that they wanted my “expert” advice but couldn’t figure out how to pay for it. However, I live in a different country (from US, now in France) and if the opportunity comes up again, I will reexamine the angles you mentioned here.

    • fred doe says:

      If you live in France, you can always join the French Foreign Legion. You’ll get in shape, have no bills and they’ll even pay you. Even your travel expenses:)

  3. dunsany says:

    Interesting point about unpaid internships. Especially in tech, where internships are often paid now – since it’s a seller’s market for internships. We businesses often need highly-skilled but cheap interns from which we can recruit in the future. We differentiate by paying them. When I started in tech 30 years ago, internships were free because everyone wanted into tech but no one was trained.

    • Hbd says:

      Im sorry but paid internship has been the norm in the US so far. Free internships were usually limited to the Congress and other institutions in Washington.

      Although I agree with Penelope on a individual level, I think that the idea that an internship should be free because you’re learning is highly dangerous on a macro level. People learning are working nonetheless and getting paid for your work is at the core of success of the US economy.
      You can learn a lot by working, but still, work=fair wage. Working for free should be the exception.
      If not, if an interesting internship=working for free, the inequalities in the country will grow even bigger, as you can work for free only if you can afford it. In this sense, the possibility of learning for young graduates will be directly tied to the socioeconomical level of their family.

      • Penelope Trunk says:

        When we manage our careers I think we need to be careful about separating what we know SHOULD happen from the action we are going to take.

        This is true for sexual harassment (it should never happen, but still, you’ll end up getting fired illegally with no retribution if you report it). Whistle blowing is like that, too. Whistle blowers get fired, eventually, because they are a pain. Just like women who report sexual harassment.

        So, back to internships. Definitely, it’s BS that you have to be able to afford to work for free in order to get enough experience to be paid. It runs the risk of turning this country into a caste system. But unless you are part of the proverbial landed gentry, you can’t afford to make a statement with your career by refusing to play by the rules. The penalties are too high, especially at the beginning of your career.

        Penelope

  4. Nancy says:

    There is another reason:

    6. Your community needs it.

    I suppose that this reason could be included under resume-building, but, given the declining economy, nearly every community-service-agency is suffering from a decline in donations (a local Boys/Girls Club has had to halve the number of children they serve) while the number of people needing the service is increasing.

    It also offers the opportunity for additional experience (see resume-building), networking, and a charitable donation that is more important than your wallet.

    Community-Service-Agencies, faith communities, schools–they all need help.

    Nancy

    • Penelope Trunk says:

      Yes, good point. It always feels nice to do something for free for someone. But be careful. Those volunteer jobs at schools, for example, help the community but look really bad on your resume. So if you are going to volunteer, do it for something that will also help your resume. There are plenty of unpaid jobs that help the community AND your resume. Pick one of those.

      Penelope

  5. Rory says:

    All good points here. My personal experience hits all but point 2, as I knew the company I was free-working for would be unlikely to have paid roles as soon as I would need one.
    When I was laid off in 2008, I started a dedicated campaign with the “Will work for free” tagline. It was directly motivated by the desire to build my resume and switch career paths. Although too old for a traditional internship, I was able to advertise my availability via networking and landed with a small computer gaming company. Despite the “illegality” and some people who felt it cheapened my brand, my experience there directly led to my next paying job and my new career. Three to four months of unpaid work was the best thing I did while looking for new paid work.

  6. Beth says:

    I’m in the museum field and it’s a given that you’ll work for free in some capacity before you get a paying job. When I started this comment, I was about to go off about how there isn’t a clear path to payment in this field – but there is, actually, and it’s interning as long as you possibly can until the budget stars align for you to get a position somewhere.

    Most of the people I know who have museum jobs got them not only because they’re very good at what they do, but because they did internships or fellowships or volunteer work so that they had connections who would think of them when the opening came up. The flip is is, sometimes it just doesn’t matter that you’re the best thing since sliced bread, there just isn’t money. So you move on to the next place for free and work part-time or deal with crazy schedules until it does work out.

    Cynical? Yes. True? Also yes. Ethical? Debatable, but it’s not going to change in the near future. I wasn’t paid for lots of work that I did, but I wouldn’t do it differently because that helped me get first a part-time job and then a full-time one. I pay it forward by recommending my stellar unpaid (or very rarely, paid) interns for any positions that I hear of and think they would be good for.

    You’re definitely right about the resumes, too – unfortunately sometimes people know how to write them well but not do anything else well. It’s a trick I’m still working on learning.

    • Ebriel says:

      Good point about the museum field/the arts in general. Very true. It is so competitive, and so much about whom you know.

      It’s important to be discerning about what unpaid opportunities to pursue, but they can pay off financially in the end – and will definitely pay in other ways.

  7. Maria says:

    This is actually something you can do in… believe it or not…graduate school! Depending on your field, you may have a more flexible schedule and a lot more leeway in designing your own projects than someone with an entry level job, and you can use that to try to make your work useful outside academia, develop specific skills beyond “research”, and meet and collaborate with people from other organizatons organizations. That’s not necessarily enough reason for going to graduate school if you’re not getting paid to be there, but if you are, it’s a neat opportunity. (In the middle of it myself, obviously, I’m hoping it pans out1)

    • Penelope Trunk says:

      That’s what I did when I was in graduate school and it saved me. I basically did none of the assigned work in school because once you’re in, they won’t fail you. Instead of the assigned work, I started teaching myself skills that were in demand in the workplace, and I started doing side projects, and I landed a great, corporate job from my useless perch in the graduate program for English at Boston University.

      Penelope

  8. Lesa says:

    I recently gave a completely free talk which you could consider working for free as I gave away some of the very things I coach my clients about. However, this free work was definitely worth my time as the group in question was composed of people in my target market and the talk exposed them to me and what I offer in a much more compelling way than any marketing I could create. And, really, this is the benefit of doing some amount of free work — it is some of the most effective marketing you can do for your business.

  9. karelys says:

    Any ideas on how to turn a volunteering experience that ended in a bad note into something worth of discussion in an interview or how to bring it up in a resume?

    I volunteered at a government mental health institution for a while because I was still in school and wanted to gain some experience, insight and if I got my foot in the door somewhere I thought oh hey great!

    But it ended bad. The director asked to take me off the schedule. I signed up for many shifts and opportunities to volunteer but sometimes I just couldn’t do certain things 100%.

    I didn’t realize that volunteering would mean you would be in the hospital for 5+ hrs with the victims and many times I had a paper due that night or whatever.

    I was wearing myself thin but for love of the people and dumb pride I wanted to make it work and didn’t cut it short when I needed to. So when things were not working out the director said “i need to take you off the schedule.”

    I never want to bring it up for future job opportunities because I think “if they call for a reference it’ll be bad.” But it’s the only “on paper” related experience in the field I want to work.

    How can I turn it around. The bad thing about this field (social services/counseling) is that you have to start at the bottom. The equivalent of dish washing. And I have no time for that.

    Any ideas on how to create an opportunity to work for free but also being able to work it out?

    • Daniel Baskin says:

      I didn’t know how good of a reference I would have from my internship because of personality differences between my supervisor and I, but apparently, he gave a glowing review. Go figure.

      I did decently in the internship, but I know that there were qualities of mine my supervisor didn’t appreciate. If possible, when asking your past supervisor if you can put them down as a reference, resolve and come to an understanding about the situation beforehand. If you’re worried, faint praise is only damning if you lack connections–which you basically NEED anyway.

  10. Margaret says:

    These are 5 great questions to ask yourself (or your company) when you consider working for free. As a consultant in a small consulting firm, we regularly offer services for reduced rates or free if it will help us reach our goals (networking, contact with a key person, teeing up additional work, etc.).

  11. Brandie Gerrish says:

    Another spot-on post, Penelope. I’ve been struggling with this exact question lately. I guest lecture at universities and career centers to build my credibility and network — mostly for free. And you know what, talking about the places I’ve spoken at (Harvard, Bentley, Bryant Univ) makes people sit up and listen when I introduce myself. May not help me pay the rent in that moment, but in the long run it differentiates me from the sea of consultants vying for the same work.

  12. Geek Girl says:

    I agree with all points. As someone who is all self-taught I can speak from experience that these things work. If you have had no experience with any of these, you may not consider the possible benefits worth while. If you have had success with any of these, then you will see the benefit they provide. ‘Free Stuff’ is a big drawing card. What you do with it once the audience is there will prove the benefit one way or the other.

  13. Suzanne says:

    Another great post. I think working for free is one of the best ways to update your resume. When I knew I was going to be unemployed because my teaching contract ended, I started thinking of ways to build my resume that didn’t include going back to school. I chose working for free. While it hasn’t paid off monetarily yet, I know it will, but that it takes time.

  14. Violeta says:

    Not everyone can afford to work for free.

    • Penelope Trunk says:

      I disagree. Most people have five extra hours during the week. Even someone with a full-time job and young kids at home can find five hours a week to do some other kind of work. That’s often all it takes to do enough work to get the bullet on your resume that you need in order to land the job that pays.

      Penelope

      • Rebecca@MidcenturyModernRemodel says:

        Re-reading these comments because of the post today. This is exactly what I am doing. Started with five hours, now it is more like ten hours a week, but if I do ten hours a week, eventually I will get somewhere … vs. doing nothing, not learning, not improving…

  15. Lion Man says:

    It’s the ultimate in predatory pricing & how the economy realigns. I’ve contributed to putting 2 business out of business by offering their product for free. In times of near total unemployment, the motto is hire us or die.

    Part of any severe recession is a total imbalance, with a completely incompetent workforce, & the skills all bound up by the unemployed. If you’ve done any interviewing lately, you know the guys currently making money are incompetent apes. Eventually the output of the unemployed exceeds the output of the employed & the process works itself out naturally.

  16. Gib Wallis says:

    Penelope, I loved this article. I’m so happy you’re happier lately because the writing is fast and fabulous! You totally rocked the Venturebeat article.

    Lots of great insight there — I think you could take the core idea at the end of doing the hardest thing first and apply it to life or career more generally for your audience here.

    I wish I had read this post when I was interning a million years ago for a producer about getting that project that helps someone… and maybe some guidelines on how to figure out how to long to work for free at one place before bailing.

  17. Ebriel says:

    I’ve just been discussing this from a hiring perspective in China. A few reasons I’m considering an intern:

    1. My business isn’t up and running here yet so I can’t pay anyone cash (legally)

    2. I want to see how we work together

    3. My field is extremely competitive – in terms of intellectual and physical property – and trust takes time to build

    I’ve an offer from a potential intern who’s looking to add to his arts experience. His skills would be beneficial to me for my upcoming arts publishing projects, and my international arts contacts could be very valuable for him.

    We’re meeting up to discuss things asap, and your post has been a huge help in outlining how this will translate into his future career.

    Thanks!

  18. Hbd says:

    Although I agree with Penelope on a individual level, I think that the idea that an internship should be free because you’re learning is highly dangerous on a macro level. People learning are working nonetheless and getting paid for your work is at the core of success of the US economy.
    You can learn a lot by working, but still, work=fair wage. Working for free should be the exception.
    If not, if an interesting internship=working for free, the inequalities in the country will grow even bigger, as you can work for free only if you can afford it. In this sense, the possibility of learning for young graduates will be directly tied to the socioeconomical level of their family. The UN and its organizations do offer unpaid internships only, but who can afford living in expensive places like New York or Geneva for six months? Yes, it’s shiny on a resume, but how many talented young men and women are excluded from the opportunity just because they can’t afford it?

  19. Robin Dickinson says:

    I would add that when you’re working for free as a means to an end, it’s essential to signpost your expectations that you are in fact wanting to ‘earn’ a paid position as soon as you have proven your worth. It’s too easy for people to take advantage of your free efforts if such shared expectations haven’t been made clear.

    Best to you,
    Robin
    @robindickinson
    Cheeky toonist and hard-nut business facilitator ;)

  20. Zee Stylist says:

    Love this post Penelope! I’ve worked for free countless times and also did an unpaid internship in college. I’ve always walked away with great knowledge and that to me is priceless.

  21. Don B. says:

    I used some free personal work to show talent in area had not been in for thirty years. Led directly to excellent flexible part time work in that area. My primary employer did some free work for a Town twenty years ago and that fact still gets us paying work twenty years later. Some business developement is priceless. I think too many readers were your idea as forty hours a week or something. We also look for grant money for projects for free all the time. Many Towns have things that need to get done. If you can find the funds you can help get the work done and get paying work at the same time.

  22. Alex says:

    I believe you’re saying that working for free, when done properly, means advertising yourself in a great manner. Learn new things and establish new connections. However, as someone outlined, this is not for beginners as some people might take advantage of them.

  23. le_third says:

    hello P – this is a bit off topic but I went and had a look at loft resumes – so what do you make of the coloured graphic design resume … has it really come to that in the US? to cut thru the pack you need to market-style your CV just wondering … having read 1000s of resumes from entry to exec I would inwardly cringe at the colour up-ed effort and might fail to see the serious applicant in amongst – cheers le

    • Penelope Trunk says:

      This is a good question. It’s very hard to use color or special fonts on a resume and not come off seeming like a moron. So if you are going to do that stuff to stand out, you definitely need to pay a company like Loft Resume to do it.

      You don’t necessarily need fancy colors and fonts, though. You can certainly have an effective resume without that. What a company like Loft Resumes really does is remind us that we are not writing our life story, we are writing a marketing document. And the strongest resumes are those that are written like a marketing document.

      It’s really really hard to write a marketing document about yourself. It’s hard to package yourself because you’re so close to yourself. That’s why I am always saying that people should pay for someone to help them with their resume. It’s not that writing a resume is really difficult. But writing OUR OWN resume is really really really difficult.

      Penelope

    • beth says:

      I wondered the same! As beautiful as these resumes are, I wondered what recruiters really thought of them these days. Last I heard they were not recommended as they would not take well to them, not to mention whether they’d even get through the ever-present keyword screening systems. most people would need to PDF something like this.

  24. Robin Dickinson says:

    Just to add to my previous comment…

    The expression ‘working for free’ can be perceived as quite negative. I prefer the expression ‘investing sweat equity’ or similar.

    This clearly signposts that you are investing your time, talent and ideas with the intention of ‘getting the job’, rather than just spinning your wheels for free because you ‘can’t get a job’.

    Best to you,

    Robin
    @robindickinson
    Cheeky toonist and hard-nut business facilitator ;)

  25. Lisa MacDougall says:

    Well Penelope, lots of interesting comments and perspectives here. I am new to the blogging world. I have a day job, which I actually love, but wanted to try my hand at something new, that has potential, that pushes me to learn, that adds to my resume and that pushes me to write. For all of these reasons, I am currently writing for free. I am experimenting with where I want to focus my website/blog. Like I said, I am very new and have lots to learn about the technology I am using, the Internet, the world today. In fact, my goal is to use my website to keep learning from other women.

    I cannot say whether this is the right way or wrong way to go about it, but I am having fun doing it, pushing myself to adapt to the modern world, and writing more than I ever have. I don’t really worry right now about what I could or could not be getting paid. Sure, I would love to earn money at it, but I feel like I have created my own unpaid internship, of sorts, except I am learning much more slowly – from the ground up so to speak.

  26. Jeff @ Digital Nomad Journey says:

    Sometimes this is the best way. When I was a chef years ago at some prestigious places, people would volunteer to work for free all the time.

    While the time-span was a matter of days, it was still common and worthwhile for them.

  27. Belindie Gomez says:

    Only wannabes work for free.

  28. Terry Vance says:

    This column is good; the Venture Beat column is great. I never heard of Venture Beat but will follow your column there.

  29. Jennifer Boykin says:

    I loved the truth in this piece. We can gripe forever about how “unfair” the world of opportunity is, about how “wrong” it is that “who you know” counts. Yep, we can either rail at the system, or we can fit ourselves to work smartly within it.

    Thanks for a great piece.

  30. MaureenSharib says:

    When we hang out in social media we’re working (to the benefits of the site’s owners!) for free.

    Privacy will be the new luxury.

  31. New Ipad says:

    This column is good

  32. Career Choice says:

    Working for free is also good in some situation especially for newbies. It makes you get working experience to be added on your resume but should not be done for long.

    People need to eat and pay their bills so it is just right that they will get rightful compensation for the services rendered.

  33. Frances Sansig Monahan says:

    You should NEVER ever work for free. I have been paid to write since I was in college — and for 20 years.– and this culture that you’re advocating doesn’t pay the bills. That’s the mentality these days: blog for the “hey, look I was mentioned!” and give your stuff away, in the hopes that someday, someone will give you a few pennies. If you’re not good enough to be paid, you probably shouldn’t be writing. Advocating free work hurts people in all professions.

  34. Silvia says:

    Interesting post! The reality in my country Portugal (drowned in severe economic crisis) is quite different. There are almost no companies hiring the internet after the internship. The intern is replaced by other intern and it goes on and on. I did some research work for free when i was unemployed without any benefit, because i wanted to have it in my portfolio and besides i needed something to do to keep my days busy in the hot, sad summer days, since i could not afford any vacations. Its experience, but it gets complicated when you have zero income and bills to pay. That is why many people after college or any professional course, go work in cafes or shops, to have an income, and put away any chance of working in the area they studied for. Unpaid internships in my country pop up everywhere around, and are also used by the companies to replace paid workers, causing bad consequences: if the unpaid internship was followed by a real job, many would do it, to learn and use their freshly learned skills, but its not. Here only wealthier youngsters can work for free since their parents can afford their bills; less wealthy people (big majority) have bills and debts, so after graduating they have to find paid jobs at cafes, shops, fast food restaurants, and even that is hard to get, due to high unemplyement rate. There are paid internships, low-paid, but even those are rare and you almost never stay on the company. You are replaced by another unpaid, or low-paid intern. And goes on and on, since the crisis began. I just wanted to share a little of what is sadly happening on internship world here in South Europe, with you all. Regards, Silvia

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