Free by Choice v. by Force

Recently, I’ve been reminded of how miserable one can feel when forced into working for free. Whether it’s making art or providing legal services or, I suppose, even driving a taxi or doing anything, when you’ve put your best efforts into something only to get nothing for it, well, it’s enough to set your teeth on edge.

I’m not talking about getting ripped off. That’s a different kind of hell, when a client doesn’t pay or someone steals your work (that’s a different kind of “free by force” that I talk about all the time–but not today).

I mean the kind of free where you’ve committed to helping out, only to get taken advantage of. Perhaps you agree to design a brochure for a local non-profit for an extremely reduced rate and, after you’ve committed, you find out that your lovely, kind contact is actually not in charge but rather her evil twin, the color-blind, disorganized battle axe is. The Axe asks for a matching postcard and email promos and guilts you into adding that work for nothing. She then emails you constantly and criticizes everything you do, even though she hasn’t a clue what good design is. That little 10-hour near-freebie is now taking 100 hours and everything is a crisis, mostly because she failed to tell you when she hired you on Thursday that the deadline for the printer is Monday. Then, when you bend over backwards to still somehow make it work, she gets pissed you can’t get that Ansel Adams guy to shoot the thing…even if he is dead.

Okay, maybe that sounds a bit far-fetched, but I bet you have your own similar story. We all do. It proves the old adage that if you give some people an inch, they’ll take a mile. That kind of free work is somehow worse, to me at least, than getting ripped off. After all, you agreed to help but then you let them take advantage. It’s a slow grind into hell.

I think the cheap clients are the worst–they over-manage and generally make things worse. They also prove the other adage that there is a relationship between the amount of money you get paid and the pain-in-the-ass factor of the client–that relationship being, of course, inverse.

On the other hand, when you knowingly and openly offer and agree to work for free, negotiating the deal with that in mind, somehow it (usually) becomes something not very work-like. I mean, often when you do a free project, by choice, for someone or something you truly want to support, the project turns into something really fulfilling. People are usually grateful for your efforts and gracious in telling you so. You are not micro-managed. You get the joy of helping without the guilt. Like a miracle, when you look back and find that you spent thrice the time you had planned on the project, it just doesn’t bother you because you made great work and it really helped. Sure, you didn’t get paid for it, but you got satisfaction

Yes, I am saying it’s okay to work for free. Some people think that I’m totally against that–I’m not. I am against working for free for any other reason than you want to give. But once you do, then you should offer to do some work pro bono. That kind of free feeds your soul.

How can you tell the difference? Easy: you get asked (guilted, begged) by others to do free work for them = Force; you offer your free services to others = Choice.

2 Responses to “Free by Choice v. by Force”

  1. Martha Retallick Says:

    Preach it, Leslie! I have cut way back on the volunteering due to the scenario described above. And the guilting you into things is a classic manipulative ploy of non-profits. Beware of it.

  2. Ryan Says:

    Thanks for the article. We feel your pain!

    We love working with paying and non-paying clients. Our best non-payed experiences have been when we’ve approached the client and said we’d like to work for them-that has led to other doors opening. Also, having a limit to how much free work (pro-bono) we do is good. It makes us choose wisely, and say no if we know we’ve A. Reached our yearly quota, or B. Dont feel the inspired enough with the project on offer.
    Also, dont be afraid to ask for something in return, like your logo on their ad! Be bold!

    Zoo team