Freelancing Tips: Will You Work for Free?

Do you ever feel like people don’t respect your time, or that you’ve been duped into providing a client consult under the guise of a social visit? I know I do! Let me give you an example.

Last week I went over to a friend’s house for beers and chit chat. My friend works for a local nonprofit that is looking for ways to raise visibility about the agency. Since I’m a writer, my friend asked me how I typically find writing gigs, and how much I typically get paid for work. I told her about some freelancing job boards, and told that in general, good gigs pay about 10 cents a word. Everything depends on the publication, and the length of the article. I got the feeling that she was trying to assess if I would pitch some articles about the nonprofit to different publications, with the hopes that the newspaper or magazine would pick up the tab. And while I support my friend’s effort to employ every medium to pinch a penny, I also know that I need to protect my own bottom line as a freelancer.

What can we learn from this case study?

First of all, when a friend asks you about your rates during a social visit, be honest. Don’t minimize your work by offering to cut them a deal. Just tell them what your rate is, and that you would love to talk to them when they are ready to proceed with the project. A recent blog article over on Copyblogger had some advice about handling these types of conversations. (Copyblogger’s daily e-mails are an excellent resource for freelancers, by the way. If you don’t already subscribe, I highly recommend it.)

Secondly, use your standard list of questions for screening potential clients in these types of situations. If the person you’re talking to doesn’t have answers to those questions, you know they’re not serious about they project they’re discussing.

Sometimes it pays to accept free work.

Let me give you another example. I volunteer at a local nonprofit on Fridays. I maintain their blog and Twitter accounts, and I do other copy-writing sorts of projects for them. I volunteer because I believe in the organization’s mission. The volunteer work I do for them helps me to keep my writing skills sharp. And it helps me meet my time management goals by getting me out of my home office every Friday. Working from home can be very lonely, so volunteering also helps me interact with honest-to-blog people on a regular basis. So there are many intangibles that result from this free gig.

How do you determine when freebies are worth your time? And how do you ensure that you’re not giving all the milk away for free? Here are some questions to ask yourself.

1. Is the client requesting free work a legitimate nonprofit or charity? Or are they just a cheap skate looking for a handout? If the client is a 501(c)3, ask them if they will accept your services an an in-kind donation. If so, make sure that you have completed the proper paperwork, such as an invoice, or an in-kind donation form, and then write the time off on your taxes as a charitable contribution.

2. Will the volunteer position help you build your resume? Let’s face it – many people are unemployed right now. Volunteering may be a great way to keep your resume current while you’re looking for paid work. And even if you’re freelancing or working a regular job, volunteering may give you the opportunity to work on projects that will seriously boost your work portfolio. If that’s the case, you should definitely budget some time to take on the project.

3. Does the request for free work have the potential to turn into a paying gig? Let’s go back to my first example. If I write a story about the nonprofit I mentioned, I have no guarantee that my pitch will be accepted by a publication. That’s true of any story I write, though. As long as I weed out nonpaying gigs on the front end and only submit my pitch to a journal or newspaper that pays, it could be a worthwhile project that diversifies my writing clips. It all depends on the pitch. (I’ll talk more about pitch letters next week, along with ways to find out if publications accept freelance submissions.)

Ultimately, a girl’s gotta get paid. That’s why I am very strict about limiting myself in terms of how much free milk I’m willing to give away, and who I’m willing to give it to. I hope these tips will help you make the best of a freeloading situation. And if you’ve got strategies for turning requests for freebies into paid gigs, I’d love to hear from you in the comments section.

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