It’s tempting to work for free or with steep discounts for friends and nonprofits, but there are some pitfalls to be aware of. If you can get to the end of these questions and feel great about designing a logo, building a website, or whatever it is you do, then by all means, go for it.

1. Did they say it’d be a “portfolio builder”?

No. Nope. Definitely not. Don’t even bother responding. If they think they’re doing you a favor by letting you have a chance to work for free, then it’s not going to end well.

2. Will you be OK with your work being under valued and not appreciated?

People will generally appreciate that you built them something that they had no idea how to do, but probably not on the level you want them to. They don’t know how hard you work, or all the considerations that go into your designs and websites, and they’re not supposed to. That’s your job.

It’s hard to fully appreciate something when you don’t know the intricacies of it. Couple that with doing the work for free/cheap, and you’re basically teaching someone that your time isn’t of much value. You have to be OK with this or have a strategy to make sure your time is valued.

3. Will you be proud of the end result?

I work hard on all my projects, but it’s not realistic to put the same level of care and detail into a free project. Is it OK? Yeah. Does it work? Of course. Is it something I want to put in my portfolio… eh… sometimes.

If you’re not willing or able to put in your full effort, then maybe it’s better to let the project go.

4. Can you give them the attention they need?

You might see their project as a simple task and understand every step that needs to be taken. They probably don’t. This might be the first business they’ve started, or a project they’re pouring their life into. If you’re not able to meet them where they’re at, then it’s probably best to pass.

5. Can you say no?

If you can’t tell them “no” now, then it’s going to be even harder to say no 3 months from now when they’re still trying to expand the scope of the project. Pair that with someone not valuing your time, and you’ve got a sticky situation.

6. Will you be able to support the project down the road?

Just because you’re doing free work now, is it still free work 9 months from now when the site gets hacked? What about if they change the tagline on their logo and need updated business cards? If it’s free for them now, why wouldn’t it always be free?

You’re eventually going to be put into a spot where you have to charge them for your time or say no. It’s not going to be easy, and you will both walk away feeling badly about the situation. Not so great for something that started with good intentions.

It is possible

This article isn’t meant to convince you that you should never do free or cheap work. The article is about making sure that at the end of the project, everyone is happy with the outcome.

Clear communication and firm boundaries are key. Make sure your time is valued, your work is appreciated, and that you have the availability down the road to keep helping out (or a firm end of project/limit to your work) and things will hopefully turn out alright for everyone.

  • Jonathan Vieker

    These are great points, Jerry. This is a question I’ve wrestled with in the past as a freelance musician (and one that Deadwood deals with as a group). I’ve also found that it’s all about communication and boundaries, and as long as both parties are on the same page, it can work!

    • Jerry Jones

      Yup – it’s possible! But if you go into it without those boundaries and communication, it’s not going to work well. I what I was trying to emphasize here is just doing something quickly because you want to help out isn’t necessarily good for anyone. It actually takes MORE work at times to ensure a good relationship after free work.

      • Jonathan Vieker

        Absolutely. Sometimes having the courage to say “no” upfront is better for everyone, even if it feels uncomfortable in the moment.

        • Jerry Jones

          Send that memo to past Jerry plz, thx.