Is “free” a good or bad thing?

Some people I coach want to give it all away.  Others — they wouldn’t give an inch to get a mile.  Who is right?  What is right?

I think (one of my heroes) Seth Godin puts it quite succinctly with this:

Should you work for free?

Some of the factors to consider:

  • Do they pay other people who do this work? Do their competitors?
  • Am I learning enough from this interaction to call this part of my education?
  • Is this public work with my name on it, or am I just saving them cash to do a job they should pay for?
  • If I get paid, is it more likely the organization will pay closer attention, promote it better and treat it more seriously?
  • Do I care about their mission? Can they afford to do this professionally?
  • Will I get noticed by the right people, people who will help me spread the word to the point where I can get hired to do this professionally?
  • What’s the risk to me, my internal monologue and my reputation if I do this work?

If you’re an up-and-coming band building an audience, then yes, free, free, free. It’s always worth it for you to gig, because you get at least as much out of the gig as the organizer and the audience do. But when you’ve upped and come, then no, it’s not clear you ought to bring your light and your soul and your reputation along just because some promoter asked you to.

Here’s the heart of it: if you’re busy doing free work because it’s a good way to hide from the difficult job of getting paid for your work, stop. When you confuse busy for productive, you’re sabotaging your ability to do important work in the future. On the other hand, if you’re turning down free gigs because the exposure frightens you, the same is true… you’re ducking behind the need to get paid as a way to hide your art.

We all (ought to) do our share of “giving back”.  That being said, you don’t ever want to discount your value or worth in the eyes of your tribe.  It all comes down to your rationale.  If you are doing it because you want to help out others or to help you get noticed, it probably makes sense.  If you are doing it because you don’t feel you are worth it…  NOT SO MUCH!

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8 Comments

  1. Ann Roman /Reply

    Hi Deb, Every time I receive these posts regarding payment I get a big nudge to work harder to not work for free! Yesterday one of my clients who cried poverty last month and asked for a big reduction in payment, described to me her 80 min massage and expert hair color treatment. I cringed, thinking about how she really could not afford the treatment and how in reality, she should have been help accountable to pay me my fair rate. I had caved because of her apparent needs in the previous month. Instead of allowing a reduced rate for just that week, I gave myself away. I end of feeling resentful and codependent, and wishing that I could afford an 80 minute massage. Thanks for your encouragement.

    1. Deborah Legge PhD CRC LMHC /Reply

      @Ann – There’s an old saying — don’t give until it hurts; give until it feels good. As you’ve learned, if we end up feeling resentful, it’s not on our clients — it’s on us. Whenever you think about offering a sliding scale, you might want to add in — “let’s give that a try for the next three months and we’ll revisit the topic of fees as that time”. This way, you’ve always got a negotiating point built right in!

  2. Maureen Shea /Reply

    I like Seth Godin;s approach. He gives all of us good questions on which to base our decision to “freeie or not.” I believe in giving back but not at the expense of supporting myself. The problem with doing freebies when you are up-and-coming is that it’s hard then for your potential clients and professional community to make the shift to you as a professional who wants to get paid. Any ideas for how to make that transition?

    1. Deborah Legge PhD CRC LMHC /Reply

      @Maureen – There are lots of ways to make that transition. For example, let’s say you do a free talk about “stress management for busy women”for a local Zonta Club. At the end of your talk (and in the handouts you provide) tell people about that new group you’re starting and tell them how it can benefit each of them! Let us know how you do it!

  3. Barbara Sheehan-Zeidler, MA, LPC /Reply

    Deb — this is SO perfectly timed! Thank you for your list of “factors to consider” because after reading them, I realize I’m ready to step into a new place. My heart/mind conflict is aptly captured when you say: “…you’re ducking behind the need to get paid as a way to hide your art.” Thank you, Deb… this post is a very impactful to me!

    1. Deborah Legge PhD CRC LMHC /Reply

      @ Barbara –So glad you heard a message you are ready to hear! We’d love to know how it works out for you!

      1. Maya /Reply

        Deb-
        You made great points regarding should we or should not we work for free! I believe that Free services should be in a form of a “charitable” contribution/giving back to community but not as a standard of practice. To me, the purpose of going into private practice/own business is to be able to earn the money for the job we do. I am not sure where this idea of “not charging” came from, but like in any business, we need to make the money.

        1. Deborah Legge PhD CRC LMHC /Reply

          @Maya — agreed!

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