I love doing free work

ilovefreework

A lot of my favorite people will tell you that you should never work for free, that you should charge by value and get what you deserve.

Let’s ignore those people for just a moment.

I’ll bet that if you’re reading this, and you design or code for a living, you’ve always got at least 1 or 2 free projects on your plate. Web designers are probably some of the most well-connected people on the planet, if for no other reason than everyone in the world wants a bunch of free work from them. Do you know your 3rd cousin’s boyfriend’s boss? No? I do, and only because he wanted a free site for his flooring company.

I’ll say that free work has led to some of my best work. It can be the perfect storm of inspiration, freedom, and style-match. It took me longer than I’d care to admit to accept that free work could only be done on my terms, and that I needed to both a) clearly define those terms and b) share them candidly before work started.

Here are some of my guidelines for pro-bono work, whether it’s for a non-profit, a friend, or (God forbid) a family member. Should these accidentally find their way to someone who’s been asking you for help, I hope they serve you well.

1. Don’t call me, I’ll call you

If you ask me to do the work, especially for free, we are already off to a bad start. (I am still working on the firm and direct “no!”, though, so you might have a small window of opportunity there.) Before you tell me I can use it in my portfolio, I’ll gently remind you that that’s exactly what I do with all my paid work.

2. I go where the inspiration leads me

I take on pro-bono work when the client or project inspire me, and when it’s a small enough job for me to manage independently and in my free time. I don’t have a graph handy, but my studies show that I work 3000% faster/better when I’m inspired by a client or her work.

3. Let me be the control freak that I am

I take on a project of this nature for the general good of the world sometimes, yes, sure. But, selfishly, I take it on for my personal and professional growth. I relish opportunities in which I have complete creative control, the freedom to do what I do, and the opportunity to learn something in a low-pressure scenario–that’s where work becomes play. If you want to control every aspect of the project, because it’s the most important thing in your life, it might be worth a little more money than zero dollars to you. And for the record, if I was inspired enough to do this for free, I’m going to do a kickass job–if you let me.

4. This is not ‘Nam. There are rules

Though you are not paying, you are still a client. I still follow the same processes of discovery, design, and development. I still treat you with professionalism, do not disclose the details of your project before it’s public, and so on. Don’t be alarmed if and when I send you a production schedule and ask you to stick to it. If you haven’t met hyper-OCD Megan, try to enjoy her. She means well.

5. This site will be work. For both of us.

Free work doesn’t require less of an investment of time, creativity, resources, or relying on my network than does paid client work. When we work together, regardless of the compensation, you agree to invest an equal amount of effort getting your things in order–being ready for a web site is more than feeling eager to have one–and learning how to use and maintain your site. In other words, I agreed to design and develop your site, possibly for free, not support and maintain it for life. I am also investing this effort into building you something with the expectation that you will care for and maintain it. If that seems like work, it is. I can build you a smart, secure, good-lookin’ site–but you still have to drive it, keep it clean, and change the oil–or hire an expert.

6. Be a Sweetie

Be pleasant, occasionally display gratitude, and really lean into it. I take on these projects because it’s different from client work, and your sweet, overflowing well of gratitude is one of those differences. But also, it makes me think you’re a nice person, and I do nice work for nice people.

7. Your budget, my schedule

I honestly can’t think of anything worse than a person who hopes for a free site, full of features, in 2 weeks. I don’t pay my bills on free work, surprise!, so I work on your site after my real job ends for the day, I’ve tucked my son into bed, and while you’re getting a good night’s rest (or instead of spending time with my family on the weekend). Expect one of two things: a longer timeline or an invoice.

8. Gift cards are cute; Cash is badass

If you want to compensate someone doing work for free, I will remind you that while gift cards make the money situation less awkward for you, and probably seem classier, the best thing you can do for your volunteer is allow him to choose where to spend the money. After all, he earned it. So, shoebox full of cash is what I’m saying.

9. Show off your site, not the bargain

You agree to not tell your friends I did this for you for free. I’m not trying to make a liar out of you or anything, but you can understand how I might not want to be viewed by your friends as a place where one can get a free web site.

which brings me to my last, most important point:

10. If you make money off of your site, so do I

This is a new rule, and probably the most obvious one I’d missed all these years. If you stand to make money from your business site, the web site fairy gets a cut. Maybe it’s cash, maybe it’s barter. I’ve got barter all over town, actually, and it’s a great mutual arrangement.

My hope is that I’ve either a) made receiving free work so unappealing (rules! longer timelines!) that you don’t even want it, or b) that if you’re already getting it, you now know how to behave or c) if you’re a designer, you think more about your own guidelines and measures of success for free work.

And before you ask, I am currently in the middle of a great, pro-bono undertaking and it’ll be a sweet long while before I’m ready for another–and this wasn’t about you.

13 comments

  1. This is an AWESOME article!! I feel like the same (or something very similar) goes with trades – just because we’re trading, doesn’t mean I’m reducing prices. I have definitely stopped taking on free or very low-priced projects, because I always left feel unappreciated!
    I’ll be taking some tips from this post…..

  2. Dorian Speed says:

    This is terrific. You’ve articulated the reasons why I don’t mind doing work for free even though it would seem to make no sense. In particular, the joy of being able to really stretch myself and learn something new.

    (But to any friends or family reading this comment, my queue of “free, fun projects” is super-super-full.)

  3. Kate says:

    This is awesome! I haven’t taken on many free projects, but when I have it’s tempting to ditch a lot of the business-y things that you mentioned just because I don’t really enjoy doing them, and hey, I’m working for free! But I think you’ve made a good point- no matter what, setting expectations is key and will pay off in the long run.

    • Megan Gray says:

      I think a lot of times, people ask for this favor without knowing what all it takes to get done. I’ve found that, in addition to telling them, outlining the whole process and establishing a business agreement really helps to put things in perspective. It also weeds out a lot of people who aren’t really committed to getting a site live–free or otherwise.

  4. James Dalman says:

    I don’t think there is anything wrong with doing work for free if you are lead to do it — especially when you have your guidelines (and you must have rules) to follow.

    Personally, most of the free design work I’ve ever done turned into a bad situation, so it’s VERY rare that I do this anymore. If I do, there are rules similar to yours. I love to be generous and give back, but now I’ve found a different outlet to do this such as coaching and mentoring, because it isn’t my “bread winning” services.

    Anyways, I love what you’ve written here. Great work and thanks for sharing!

  5. Josh says:

    A while ago, I was defending my less-than-astronomical rates to a fellow (more seasoned) business owner, saying that I got to work with fun people and not everyone can afford big development rates. She gave me a great piece of advice:

    “Charge enough so you can do the fun stuff for free.”

    The advice took a few years to sink in. Now that I’m in a place where I can give my work away to family and friends, it makes so much more sense now.

    These are great guidelines for free projects and I think the big one is #1 (coincidentally). Asking for free work should feel inappropriate if you’re to be taken seriously. Let me help you and feel good about it instead of “giving you a deal.”

    Great post, Megan.

  6. Sara Dunn says:

    This is a wonderful (and realistic!) list of guidelines. Thank you for sharing! As a new and enthusiastic web designer, I find myself wanting and offering to “fix” websites for my favorite local non-profits. I’m glad I’m not the only one, and I appreciate you sharing what you’ve learned in doing free work. Thanks!

    • Megan Gray says:

      Not a lot of people will agree with me here, but that urge to involve myself in others’ work and give my time/talent is actually what sustains my ability to do this professionally. It connects me to something bigger than a job, reminds me why I love it, and refuels my creativity. I actually think I’d get really burnt out without these inspiring, fun creative projects–even if it is more work.

  7. Jeni says:

    I’ve always heard the mantra “Never do for free what you do for fee.” As in, make cookies, volunteer, head up a phone chain – whatever! – but don’t give away what you usually get paid to do. I’ve gotten burned a few times in the past, but thanks to now using a formal contract (“what’s included/expected”) even for deeply discounted/pro bono work, bad experiences are a thing of the past. Well, hopefully. ;)

    Love your perspective…and it’s also nice to hear that even “big designers” have room for generosity.

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