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What to say when you’re asked to work for free

As a one-time professional musician (Now retired.) and someone who has run small companies this article in today's Toronto Star needed to be spread. Great thinking!

Here is the guts of the article. 

By: Rhonda Abrams Special to The Star, Published on Tue Nov 19 2013

If you own a small business or are self-employed, sooner or later you will be asked to work for free. Should you?

If you own a small business or are self-employed, sooner or later you will be asked to work for free. The more successful you become, the more requests you’ll get.

But with the right response, you can turn these freeloaders into something positive.

You may want or need to work for free, especially when you’re just starting out to build a resume, client list or broaden your skills. At any time, you may be happy to donate your time and talent to good causes or very good friends.

Here are some ways to respond to common requests:

I can’t pay you, but you’ll get great exposure

  • What exactly is the nature of the exposure? How will my name and description be used? Will you have a link to my website?
  • How many people will be there?
  • I’ll need a testimonial from your company for my website and brochures.
  • Thank you, but I obviously have enough exposure since you contacted me.

I don’t have a budget for this project

  • When does your next fiscal year start? Let’s talk about a project then.
  • Who in your company might have a budget now?

We’re a start-up and don’t have any money

  • I’m swamped right now. Good luck and call me again in a month or two.
  • I would be happy to help out. But I can give you only 10 (or whatever) hours for free.
  • I’ll take stock. (Hey, if you believe in the company, take that chance. Graffiti artist David Choe got stock for painting a start-up company’s offices. That start-up was Facebook, and Choe’s stock turned out to be worth $200 million.)

I’ll trade you

  • Sure. Let’s get the deal in writing, so we know exactly what we’re swapping.
  • Sorry, I don’t really need (whatever they have to offer.)

We’re friends

  • Happy to help. Let’s write down what you’re asking me to do, what you’re paying for and what you’re not, so we keep our friendship.
  • Sorry, I don’t have the time. I need to (choose one) finish the paying projects I’m on, look for paying work.

There are lots of other people who will do it for free.

  • You should absolutely contact one of them.

When you give something away, send a bill listing your fee, followed by words such as “Fee Voluntarily Waived.” This establishes your value and reinforces that you won’t always work for free.

Be realistic: At some point if you can’t get paid, change the field you’re in or recognize that you have a hobby and not a business.

Rhonda Abrams provides business planning advice to entrepreneurs and is the publisher of books for entrepreneurs. She writes for USA Today.

Rhonda Abrams is president of The Planning Shop and publisher of books for entrepreneurs. Her most recent book is Entrepreneurship: A Real-World Approach. Register for Rhonda's free newsletter at Twitter:@RhondaAbrams.

Copyright Rhonda Abrams 2013.



  1. Sam Fisher
    Sam Fisher December 9, 2013

    I completely agree that working for free is not a bad idea when you wish to build a strong resume. The whole idea is that you need to show what you have to offer before you can ask for your worth and actions speak louder than words. Not every gain is monetary in nature.
    Great insight to new venture owners.

  2. Sara Willis
    Sara Willis September 14, 2014

    WHen you pick my brain, you pick my pockets. Pay me. Rent, taxes, food, insurance, education, are NOT free. Pay me. No pay, NO work cheapies.

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