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.