How to Manage Conversations and Requests to Work for Free

One challenge I’ve struggled with as a small business owner, has been how and when to draw the line on giving away my services and time for free. Because of my personal belief that helping people is a human duty, I struggle the most when asked by someone I know and who desperately needs my services to work with them for free. They often can’t afford to pay me and/or have an expectation that I won’t charge them because of our relationship. My mind always wonders why this person thinks I don’t need the money and yet, I still consider their offer. After weighing my options and talks with other entrepreneurs who share this struggle, I recently decided that I will continue to take on “pro-bono” clients but only when I can and want too. If I want to see my business grow, I’ve got to keep working toward my goals, one of which involves me having several well-paying clients so that I can quit my full time job. The more I accept free work, the farther I get from achieving my biggest goal.

There are business benefits to helping people (for free) especially when a business is new. Taking on a client for free is a good way to evaluate and test products, services, and processes. I once learned through a free client project, that I wasn’t as strong as I thought I was in particular area of public relations. As a result, I had to go back and refine by services which ended up being a great business decision. A free project that goes extremely well, could produce a strong case study and testimonial for the website and business portfolio. Benefits aside, free work has its place in business but you as the business owner have to create rules for how and if it fits. Here is how I manage the free work conversation and request:

Rule #1. Never accept a free project, on the spot

If I know the person is not my ideal client, am unsure about if I really want to giveaway my time, or need more time to think then, I tell them I need to see what else I have going and will get back to them. This isn’t a lie because I need to think about what this could mean for me (does it fit with what I do, do I have the time, and do I want to work with them for FREE). If while thinking it through I see opportunities that could yield paid work somewhere down the line by way of the client or their network, then it’s worth me possibly taking it on. The key is to think about it first and make a decision second.

Rule #2. Say no and tell them why

I consider myself a certified badass and tell people no all the time but saying no to someone I know and like that needs my help is tough for me. To soften the blow for me and them, I’ve found that saying no with an explanation helps. My new go to lines are: “I’m not taking on pro-bono clients right now” or “I can’t afford to take on a free work right now.” It’s subtle and reminds the person that I’m running a business. I am not a volunteer.   

Rule #3. Create space for free work.

If you’re like me and are ok with helping people who really really need help for free occasionally, then create space so you can. I’ve already decided that I am not giving away any more free work or time for the rest of this year but I will take on no more than three free projects in 2016.  I am still able to fulfill my personal need to help people without compromising the goals I’ve set for myself and the business.  

I’m guessing that requests to work for free will be around for as long as I am in business. But, the good news is the choice is mine and is one of the reasons why I went into business for myself. I choose to follow my own rules without sacrificing what’s needed to meet my big goal.