The Kinds of Work We (Should Not) Do for Free

by Joshua Michtom

People in the creative fields perennially suffer requests to do for free what they usually do for pay. This phenomenon is not unremarkedupon, and not particularly surprising in an economy where all sorts of labor is put out to bid in a way that encourages workers to undercut one another.

A general rule in our handbook for getting by in the freelance economy should definitely be DON’T WORK FOR FREE. Remember, the whole point of the freelance economy is that it delivers labor to to employers more cheaply because there is an endless supply of strugglers waiting to work for nothing more than the promise of exposure or future paid work.

But are there exceptions to that general rule? Of course there are exceptions. Jessica Hische has created a handy flowchart at the appropriately named to help you through the decision, but based on personal experience, I would posit an even simpler set of rules. First, put aside any work where you are hoping for exposure or future paid work. That’s a fool’s game. All remaining free work will fall into one of two categories:

1. Free work you do because it is fun.
Spoiler: this is actually the only acceptable kind of free work (except doing work for your mom, which is actually sort of the same, because it’s a situation where not doing the work is especially not-fun). The best kind of free work I do is this kind: in my city, all sorts of non-profits throw fundraising events where they need some kind of live entertainment, and sometimes they ask my band to play. Because we all have day jobs and we all love playing music for a crowd, this works nicely for us, and we usually get free drinks.

2. Free work you do because you are worried that it will be done poorly by someone else if you don’t do it.
This is the worst kind of free work I do. The same non-profits for whom I will happily play music also periodically ask me to translate things into Spanish for them. Spanish translation is actually not fun for me. It’s not particularly hard, but it takes time and it’s rarely entertaining. The problem is that if someone needs a Spanish translator, it’s because that person doesn’t speak Spanish. That means she won’t be able to judge the quality of whatever Spanish translation she gets, which raises the distinct possibility of a lousy Spanish translation. LOUSY SPANISH TRANSLATIONS MAKE ME BONKERS. The city buses in Hartford have them. The DMV has them. The ads I see online because Facebook’s algorithm thinks I’m a stay-at-home Chicana mother have them. They are everywhere and they make me cringe. I actually carry around white-out and a marker so as to correct poorly translated signs whenever I can. Thus, I am compelled by compulsive linguistic nitpickiness to do free work that I would rather not do.

Am I missing anything? Is there some other category of free work that is worthwhile or that we should all avoid?

Photo by the author