Should you ever work for free?

Tom Albrighton

ABC Copywriting

BanknotesIt would be lovely if every client accepted your price and conditions without complaint – and, of course, many do. But there are also situations where you can end up working for pay that is conditional, deferred or waived completely.

This post looks at a few such scenarios (lumped together under the term ‘free work’) and suggests how you might deal with them.

Most of these arrangements are incompatible with PCN’s suggested rates, but I’m commenting here in a personal capacity, based on my own experience. If you need legal advice on contract terms, consult a solicitor.

Pros and cons of free work

Any deal freely agreed by all parties is fair by definition. So as the side with the least power and the most to lose, you need to weigh the risks against the benefits and only enter into commercial arrangements that are definitely right for you.

You might want to do free work:

  • to win a project you wouldn’t otherwise have got (ostensibly)
  • to secure future work from the same client (again, ostensibly)
  • to build up your portfolio, and/or add prestigious names to your client list
  • to gain experience in new areas
  • to help your friends and family
  • to support good causes.

Conversely, you might not want to do free work because:

  • it reduces your earnings, or worsens your cash flow
  • it gives the client too much power, or makes the relationship too unequal
  • it diminishes your professionalism and the perceived value of your work
  • it sets the wrong tone, or an unwanted precedent, for the subsequent relationship
  • it makes you feel resentful or put-upon.

It’s worth analysing your reluctance, so you can work out what would make the deal acceptable. If your reservations are emotional (which is not to say they’re not justified), tweaking the terms a bit might not make any difference. On the other hand, if the package simply isn’t good enough, no amount of fine words will butter your parsnips.

Offers vs requests

Offers to work for free are something that every freelancer is at liberty to make. But requests for free work are very different. Regardless of the terms proposed, the fact of the request sends a message in itself. It could mean:

  • the client is short of cash, and/or has a very aggressive cash-flow policy
  • the client has a ‘something for nothing’ attitude, with implications for the later relationship
  • the client wants to strongarm you or bypass your T&Cs, whether for financial benefit or just to assert their power.

The reasons to work for free can be cited by either side, but the subtext is very different. For example, you might feel that a particular client would enhance your portfolio, but if they make that argument, you might note the mismatch between their fine words and penny-pinching deeds.

If a request or the way it’s made makes you uncomfortable, the time to act on your intuition is now, by politely but firmly declining the project. Some clients will then try to play nice, but in a way the damage is already done. It’s up to you whether you relent and reopen the negotiation.

Whatever you decide, remember that the requester has shown an interest, however casual or crassly expressed, in using you. And that gives you power in the negotiation.

Now let’s look at some types of request you might receive.

Working for charities, friends and family

Pro bono work is the simplest and least contentious reason to work for free. As well as the gratification of helping a good cause, you might be able to get experience of new sectors or media. However, the warm ‘n’ fuzzy stuff shouldn’t mean your offer has no strings attached – in fact, it makes the other aspects of the deal even more important.

First and foremost, you need to clearly define the scope of the work, to guard against ‘creeping featurism’. With no invoice to bring a definitive close to the project, and the potential for emotional blackmail (whether real or perceived), you need to be very clear about exactly what you’re offering to do, in terms of both deliverables and working process.

By imposing structure and discipline on proceedings, you can make sure the client takes the relationship seriously. They don’t have to fall over themselves in gratitude, but they do need to respect the value you’re offering and repay it with clear communication, prompt feedback and perhaps flexibility on scheduling.

All the same things apply to working for friends or family, but as you can probably appreciate, it’s much harder to lay down the law with them. The last thing you want is to fall out with someone close to you over an Oxford comma, so think carefully about how the arrangement will work before you start it. Specifically, consider how accustomed your friend or relation is to hiring and dealing with professionals in other areas of life.

‘We’re a startup/small business and money is tight’

Should a client get special treatment just because they’re small? Some would say that if you haven’t saved enough in your holiday fund, you should stay at the Travelodge rather than trying to haggle at the Savoy. I’m a small business myself, but I don’t go around trying to force my fellow professionals down on price; I try to cut my coat according to my cloth.

Startups are different, maybe, in that their protestations of poverty are more likely to have merit. They often resort to ‘lots of work in the pipeline’ (see below), but a bigger attraction for you, which they may not even appreciate, is the opportunity to have a major influence on a nascent brand.

‘We need to see what you can do for us’

Assuming you have some previous work to show, the request for a free sample, pitch, spec work or copy test is predicated on the phrase ‘for us’. You may be able to show general ability, but the client wants to see how you’ll write for their brand specifically. I leave it to you to determine the validity of that position.

The sample might be framed as the final hurdle before commissioning you, or as a competitive copy-off between you and some other writer(s). In the end, it doesn’t make much difference, since the basic proposition is the same: carry out an assignment without payment and get evaluated against shadowy and possibly non-existent criteria and/or competitors.

Now, you might declare that any attempt to make you jump through such hoops is unacceptable on principle, and I wouldn’t disagree. Certainly, the nature of the deal and the fact of the request are hardly conducive to doing your best, most creative or most committed work. As Alastaire Allday points out here, background research and achieving the right tone of voice are a huge part of any new project, and you’re effectively throwing them in for nothing, so the deal is actually even better than the client imagines.

In practice, however, the free-sample decision depends on who’s asking and what’s involved. For example, if the request is from a firm similar to many others you’ve already worked with, you might feel OK about loftily waving them towards your portfolio. But if it’s from a juicy client in an area you’ve long been desperate to get into, who’s come to you via a personal referral, maybe you should swallow your pride.

However, the scope of the sample is also important, both in terms of how long it will take you and how much value the client will get. If the deliverable constitutes an entire piece of work (such as a slogan or sales letter) that they can take away and use (perhaps repeatedly, or for a long period), you could actually be giving them quite a bit of value. Maybe there’s a way to set the boundaries such that the output is not quite as valuable, but your ability still shines through.

If you don’t have much else on (i.e. the opportunity cost is relatively low), doing a free sample with the chance of gaining a new client might actually the best use of your time. Yes, the client benefits, and no, you don’t know the rules of the game, but still. Don’t cut off your nose to spite your face, particularly if you’ll relish the challenge and enjoy the actual writing.

If you do go ahead, make sure the scope is crystal clear on both sides, and state what you would have charged, so the client understands that the rate will be going up for any subsequent work. If you offer a discount, enter it on your invoice as a deduction, as opposed to simply reducing the final price.

If you don’t want to do the sample for free, but do want to work for the client, the obvious route is simply to quote your standard rate for the sample. Such a response is completely professional and puts the ball firmly in the client’s court – if they truly want to use you, they need to put their money where their mouth is. But of course, they might up the ante by saying…

‘There’s lots of work in the pipeline’

This is a classic negotiating gambit for a company approaching a freelancer from cold. Presuming (often correctly) that the freelancer’s income stream is precarious and unpredictable, the client dangles the future-work carrot in the hope of obtaining a discount or free sample.

Actually, I believe many of these overtures are honest at the time they’re made. The problem is there are just too many contingencies. The client’s business has to develop how and when they expect it to – which is far from a given for any firm. They have to like what you do for them, and be willing to pay the going rate for it at some point. Finally, having pulled this trick once, they have to decide that it wouldn’t be cheaper just to approach a different freelancer and try it again. And that’s a whole lotta ‘if’s between you and the green.

If you want to say no, simply indicate that any bulk discount (which is effectively what this is) has to be agreed on a known quantity and scope of work, i.e. you’ll happily price for all the current and future work, considered as a single commission. The client must then choose between paying now, walking away or waiting until they can gather all the work together as you’ve requested.

‘We can only pay for what we use’

This is essentially the same as a free sample, but might look better at first glance because of the way it’s framed. After all, the money’s there – all you have to do is not screw up.

Now, you might back yourself to nail that sucker on, and I salute your confidence. But how level is the playing-field? In the wrong hands, this sort of arrangement can facilitate a host of bad behaviours, and end up being even worse than a free-sample scenario.

With a copy test, you do your little dance and dutifully await the judges’ marks. But with conditional payment, the client is at liberty to send you off on endless wild-goose chases in search of the draft that will satisfy. With the onus to complete the project completely on you, this can easily devolve into interminable iterations achieving only marginal progress towards the goal, or scattergun requests for alternative approaches, probably predicated on ‘I’ll know it when I see it’.

After a few days or weeks of that, you’ll be tempted to resubmit an earlier draft and see if it gets through. But realistically, your only options are to keep on revising or walk away. And at the end of it all, the client can still maintain they’re not going to use your stuff and not pay, despite holding what could be a 99% perfect draft. (Unlike some creatives, copywriters can’t share their work in a non-usable format, like a lo-res PDF of a print design.)

I have actually seen some copywriters promise ‘we’ll keep writing until you’re satisfied’ on their sites, as a way to entice new clients. It’s up to them how they do business, of course, but in my opinion that’s commercially fruitloop and sends entirely the wrong message too. If copywriters want to be regarded as professionals and not mere word-shovellers, we have to retain at least some say in what constitutes quality and delivery.

Regardless of what’s agreed upfront, differences over whether the brief has been met can arise at any time. As Darth Vader demonstrated in The Empire Strikes Back, post hoc renegotiation is a risk wherever there is asymmetrical power.

If you do agree to ‘pay on use’, you need to agree a very tight brief with the most stringent success criteria, so you can establish, objectively, that you’ve met the brief. But if the client disagrees regardless, you’ll have to legally prove you’ve delivered in order to get paid (and I have no idea whether that’s even feasible). Which goes to show that formal instruments will only get you so far – a relationship is built on trust and rapport, not the letter of the law.

Personally, if I realise I haven’t met the client’s expectations and probably can’t, I offer to invoice 50% and walk away with no hard feelings. It’s far less stressful than charging into battle and frees me up to go where I can add value.

‘We can only pay for results’

One step beyond ‘pay on use’ is ‘pay for results’. Since I haven’t done much direct-marketing work, I don’t know how much this is used (if at all). But in principle, a client could propose that they only pay once a certain performance threshold is reached – as measured by metrics such as conversion rate, open rate, response rate, sales, enquiries and so on. This would put you on a par with marketing service providers such as affiliate networks, who mostly operate on a ‘pay for performance’ basis.

As with other dealshapes, the devil is likely to be in the detail. How will the success threshold be determined? How will performance be measured? Over what period? And how will the data be gathered and shared? Since this arrangement gives the client a financial incentive to withhold or distort information, you’ll want to be as confident as possible in the transparency of performance data.

Another issue would be the interdependencies between your work and others’. If the designer sets your email copy in stupidly small white-on-black type, your conversion rate will suffer no matter how sharp your call to action is. And then there’s the client themselves. If they’ve got final approval over your copy, and their amends reduce its selling power (in your eyes), where does that leave you?

Overall I can see a lot of issues with this type of deal, and as I say I don’t know how much it is actually used. If you have worked this way, please do share your experience in the comments.

‘We can’t pay you until we get paid ourselves’

This comes up when the client is an intermediary hiring you on behalf of an end client, and stipulates that you will only get paid once their end client pays them. It’s sometimes used by agencies, particularly small and/or young ones, who don’t really have the cash flow to support the full agency model – or, indeed, larger businesses who just fancy leaning on their suppliers to improve their own cash flow.

As an upfront condition, it may be merely irritating or unsettling; as a post hoc switcheroo once you’ve done the work, it can be devastating. (The below is an edited version of my response to a member’s forum query on this topic.)

There are a number of problems with ‘you get paid when we do’. First, you’re a hostage to fortune in terms of the agency’s workflow and the end client’s whims. If your work forms part of a bigger project that involves other suppliers (such as a website), you could be left waiting while the project grinds through development hell. That could take months, or even years – always assuming (gulp) that it ever gets finished at all.

Second, you are also beholden to the end client’s creditworthiness, which is probably not visible to you. If the end client refuses to pay, or goes bust, you’ll be out of pocket. As I know from experience, this sort of disaster can bring down the agency too (another reason they don’t want a liability to pay you). Then you can be left without even a contact to talk to, and as a minor unsecured creditor, your chances of getting anything from an administration are slim to zero. Basically, you’re doubling your credit risk, because you’re dependent on two interlinked organisations to get paid, rather than one.

Finally, with the best will in the world, the agency still has a financial incentive to withhold or distort information about the project to delay payment. If they’re short of cash, it’s in their interests to say the project is not completed, or that they haven’t been paid, to avoid paying. Unless you have an objective indicator that you can use – e.g. the new site’s online, so the project must be done – you’re completely in the dark and at the agency’s mercy in terms of project information.

Short of saying ‘no’ outright, a halfway house is to ask whether you can deal with the end client direct. That way, you get a much better sense of who you’re dealing with, and you can put a deal in place that favours you more. It cuts the agency out of the loop, of course, but in my view they only get to occupy the intermediary position if they commit to paying you.

If nothing else, I hope this post has shown that you need to take care whenever alternative terms and conditions are on the table. While the vast majority of clients act fairly and in good faith, there will always be one or two who try to bend the deal to their will. Caveat venditor!

  • What are your experiences of alternative payment terms? Share your experiences in the comments…


11th January 2016

Jane Shepley

Interesting post Tom, with food for thought for me.

I tend to write for charities, and my core clients are large organisations that can afford to pay the going rate for professional services (though ‘going rates’ in the third sector are certainly lower than the commercial world).

I’m in year 3 of my freelance career and feel it’s time to expand my client list. In 2015 I was excited to get to pre-quote-briefing stages on interesting projects with a couple of small charities. It was all going swimmingly until my quote…I was waaaaaayyyy over their budget. We went back and forth negotiating amicably, but I simply couldn’t go as low as they needed – I only work part time and know what I need to earn.

It was tough to have to walk away and I beat myself up a bit at the time, thinking should I have worked to their budget to get them on my books, especially as I had no other projects on my desk at the time??

Subsequently, a bunch of work came in to the same timescales, and that paid me my full day rate so I felt relieved and vindicated that I hadn’t agreed to work for much much less.

What I learnt from my predicament is that I need to develop a ‘policy’ for myself on whether/when/how I wish to work with small/poor charities – even if it’s only in my head. This will give me a starting point on which to base decisions about working for less or pro bono, when I feel I can afford to do so.

Perhaps most crucially, I took away the learning that I must always ask what their budget is during the earliest conversations. This may be obvious to many, but it was an important lesson for me.

Here’s to a prosperous new year!

11th January 2016

Andy Nattan

I’ll bend over backwards to accommodate my clients. Split payments, piecemeal work on an ad-hoc basis (here’s your website quote, divide it by the number of pages and we’ll do them as and when), generous payment terms…

But here’s the rub. If they don’t pay, I don’t write. I don’t do free samples, I don’t balance work now against potential work later, and I don’t put pen to paper without a contract.

I’ve relaxed this rule once, and I’ve been burned. “Oh, write us a sample page and we’ll pay you it and the rest of the site if we choose you.” Sure thing – page was written. And I never heard from them again.

The current site looks like every page was written by a different person. I wonder if there’s a reason for that?

12th January 2016

Christopher Rees

Interesting article Tom, with some very good points.
Jane’s comment about the quote being over budget strikes a chord.

I ran a 30 strong salesforce for many years in the engineering industry and this happened on quite a number of occasions. What I learnt was, if you can spend some time determining the customers budget before you quote it does pay dividends. Sounds too obvious I know, but if this is possible, when the quote arrives on their desk there is often less of a surprise.

It also gives you time to assess whether you want to work for the budget and whether it sounds reasonable.

I would say, though, that customers are often not keen to provide budgetary costs and besides they often don’t have this information to hand.

To get round this, if you can make a quick assessment of the amount of work required and pitch them a few figures to get some feedback then this usually helps you to understand where their expectation levels lie. You can then decide what price to quote.

Of course, what is competitive for one company is expensive for another and it’s not always company size related. Understanding the clients culture as to how they make their purchasing decisions is also beneficial, are they purely price related or do they want quality and added value, but that is a bigger subject.

20th January 2016

Sharon Edge

The only appropriate time to work for free is when you have a genuine pro bono client. Mine is a children’s hospice. Otherwise you’re not only selling yourself cheap, you’re lowering rates for all of us. If you’re good enough, they’ll pay.

21st January 2016

Jim O’Connor

Great article, thanks. I agree with comment from Sharon and, coincidentally, agreed to do some work for a children’s hospice only yesterday. Hope it’s not the same one!!! Mine’s near Oxford…

Also agree point about us all pulling together on rates rather than undercutting each other.

25th January 2016

Mel Fenson

Some fab points raised. I’ve done work ‘on spec’ but have decided I’m probably allergic to it now (I love this clip about spec work: Also allergic to the ‘I need copy for at least 25 other sites’ line as a carrot for me to reduce my rates.

That said, when starting out as a freelance writer, I wrote a piece for the marvellous, now defunct, ‘Fire and Knives’ for free and I have zero regrets. I loved the ethos of the publication, and I still love picking the sturdy little book off the shelf and seeing my bio in there.

More recently my pro bono work is for my kids’ competitive swimming club. It started as an ‘I’ll build and write you a website’ venture and has morphed into PR work, social media and all comms.

It has led to paid work, but mostly it’s just really fun. Sports clubs (little ones) don’t have the budget for professional help from copywriters, etc and I love giving back to the community, club and sport with the writing, and creating a tone of voice that has helped set the club apart from its rivals. Perhaps it’s just an ego trip dressed up as a love for competitive swimming?! 🙂 I can heartily recommend it either way.

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