Project Management

Six reasons why you might work for free


Yes, as in "no money." Before you say "never," better read this list. I've provided free services (though I may not like to admit it) under several circumstances:

  1. Marketing. To gain a new client, it's often useful to toss them a freebie. It can't be a project that requires a lot of time, though -- and make sure the potential client knows that only "the first one" is free.
  2. Reputation. Putting your name on some open source projects or posting free code examples on the web helps to get your name in circulation as someone who knows what they're doing. That was one reason why I started Chip's Tips.
  3. Charity. If you believe in a cause, it makes sense to donate in kind with what you do well -- and it doesn't hurt your public image, either. I host and maintain the site for the PAR 4 Kids' Sake annual golf tournament, benefiting autism research. It doesn't take very much of my time (except right before tournaments), but those services would probably cost the organization a couple of thousand dollars a year if I didn't provide them gratis.
  4. Friends. This one can easily get abused, but when a personal friend asks for help, how can you say no -- and how can you charge them? In a healthy friendship, though, there needs to be some quid pro quo. If you find that your "friend" is always leaning on you and not giving anything in return, it might be time to change their status from "friend" to "leech" -- er, I mean "client."
  5. Family. You can't usually choose your family members, and attempting to convert them to client status could get you barred from future reunions (which might not be a bad thing). Best to live several hundred miles away, so you can only be cornered on the occasional visits. Repeat after me: "Sorry, my telephone service has been flaky again, and your e-mails must be getting snagged by one of my spam filters."
  6. Mistakes. Maybe you underbid on a fixed-price contract. Ouch, that hurts -- and it's why I usually insist on hourly. But it sure does make you want to work more efficiently when you go flying past your break-even point! Or maybe you made some mistakes in the project, and feel compelled to rectify them for the client without charge. That's a laudable motive, but you have to be careful. If you establish a precedent of "fixing things" for free, then your client might begin to broaden the definition of "fixing things" to include getting to "what I want now" from "what I said".

OK, now how many times have you worked for no money?

About

Chip Camden has been programming since 1978, and he's still not done. An independent consultant since 1991, Chip specializes in software development tools, languages, and migration to new technology. Besides writing for TechRepublic's IT Consultant b...

66 comments
Aaron Mason
Aaron Mason

Hi I have one policy regarding payment for doing IT work for friends - "if you feel you must, whatever you think I'm worth". Sometimes that doesn't mean money, sometimes it means favours down the track, sometimes it's "canned goods" (i.e. slabs of alcoholic beverages - feel free to use that one), sometimes it's a free feed or being shouted a beer when you bump into them at your local watering hole. In my experience they tend to be rather generous when you put it in terms like that, rather than constraining them to a client's payment schedule. Also, if any parts are required, usually I'll just say "you can get it from such-and-such-a-place and it's this much" and then offer to help them set it up. They're usually happy to buy it in return for your assistance in setting it up, and even then there's probably a slab of beer in it for you.

ice.icea
ice.icea

Work for Free, for me: its sometimes good experience and of course interesting job; Also its good for reputation and relationship with friends and non-friends.

mack.forums
mack.forums

tahnx a lot!!!! i learned something very useful for practical situations

AlexNagy
AlexNagy

I've actually worked for free several times, most notably I was the tech lead for Peopletech through a group called Charity Focus. I was also going to be the project lead on another project I found after that one, for the Mary Ryder home (I believe it was based in Chicago), but they balked on the project and I wound up closing it out. I felt really good about the work I did on Peopletech - although I'd like to go back and update it a bit now that I know more now then I did then - especially since I took it over when the original tech lead had to drop the project because of a medical condition. Taking over someone else's work is very tough.

aksharma662
aksharma662

I strongly agree and help me to enhance my capabilities and new learing experiance. I always looking such oppurtunity.

nyong88
nyong88

While I've never worked for 'FREE' I have employed camden's 'barter' and I believe what others have said 'It'll come back to you.' However, I like to modify 'FREE' with something better. For example, a small business wants you to set up a network. They don't have a full time administrator. The owner approaches you to see if you'll do something for 'FREE.' You tell the owner, 'I have a counter proposal. If I can show you what to do to maintain your network, you'll save X. Would you be interested? If the owner says YES, away you go, charging the same rate as you normally would. However, if the owner says, 'NO, I'm too busy, THEN, you say, 'To network the amount of PC's, configure the hardware usually costs X. However, I understand that you wish to save money and I truly respect that. What I can do is instead of an hourly, I'll charge you a flat fee for this project and I'll work Friday night through the weekend to get you operational for Monday morning. This saves X. Are you interested?' This simple process has gathered me more business than I can remember. Also, the implicit value of your services is maintained AND you don't feel as if you're being used. As for the other points about volunteer, friends etc, YOU determine what you're willing to do. If you have a hard time saying NO (which I get the impression that MANY have), then you're going to set yourself up for lots of disappointment. My 8.8 cents.

venkat1926
venkat1926

there is one more reason. when you have acquired some knowledge you would like to share it with others and also help others. This may give more satisfaction. venkat

liljim
liljim

As an Accountant/Tax preparer AND Computer consultant I am often faced with this question. My answer is a little different, but I have yet to have anyone convince me I am wrong. I and my clients support many things. But I never do it by not billing or billing $.00. I bill and recommend all of my client bill their time out at their standard rates. If the bill should show a net billing of $.00, then I recommend they include a credit line on the invoice, charged back to a separate expense account. As an example, If I would charge a client or other party $80 for labor and $14.00 for materials, I'd post an offsetting credit for $94 and label it "Policy Adjustment", (Item #6 in your letter), "Public Support" (Item #3), "Personal Allowance" (Items #4 and #5) or "Marketing/Promotional Allowance", (Item #1 and #2). Policy adjustments and Personal Allowances are lumped together under Sales Returns and Allowances. Policy Adjustments are treated as a Warranty Cost, and Marketing/Advertising are just that, Advertising. This may sound like a lot of busy work. But in the long haul, people will only appreciate and not waste what you give them if they know how valuable the gift is. Likewise you will be much more aware of the expenses you incur, if you price it out in full. Years ago A very good friend, client, and printing job shop let his local church have all their printing done for free. He discovered they had adopted an informal policy of ordering 200% of what they needed since there was not any cost and they "did not want to run short!" In that case, my client went to a policy of making a cash donation each month of what was reasonable. But charged the church for all the printing he did for them. They started wasting less and had cash left over. But it cost my client less every month in terms of actual costs. What really amazed him, his name suddenly showed up as one of the top donors to the church, where as before gossip had it that he "never donates anything to the church, but a little free printing." I hope some of you will try this out for yourselves. It has worked well for me and puts folks on notice of how much it costs for me to do their little jobs for them "pro bono."

lbindustries1
lbindustries1

I have done it. I have given free service to friends and even to the church that I go to. It always comes back to you with more work, paying that it, at a later time.

Dukhalion
Dukhalion

That's one reason, too. If a project is very interesting and there's no way to get any pay, I might still concider doing it for free

PJ Ruder
PJ Ruder

I've offered my client free services on a project that would be applied toward a certification. I advised that the work would be done after billable hours and that both the client and I would benefit. They're getting a problem solved with no consulting costs and I am keeping myself marketable. I am still awaiting feedback. Many of the certifications I've been interested in earning require a specific job title that only an employee would have. The certification I'm going for requires a specific project which is more easily done by an employee of a company interested in keeping its workforce current. I hope my client sees the benefit of using free services of a consultant who has become familiar with their systems. Of course if the project is too big, they may want to move it to billable hours to get it done quicker!

BrokenEagle
BrokenEagle

Thanks for reminding me that I need to get out the door to diagnose a network wiring problem at my church.

robocso
robocso

In the past I did a lot of free work for charities, friends and family. What I eventually found is that by doing free work you are stealing from yourself and your loved ones. Unless we are sitting on our million dollar yacht cruising around the world at our leisure there is no such thing as free time in our lives. Every hour we give to strangers is an hour we can???t spend with our life partners/kids/family/friends and an hour we are not earning money to improve our lives. Based on all the time I gave to good causes my karma cup should have been running over but alas in the real world life doesn???t care how much karma you have stored up because money makes the world turn. Until you are sitting on the yacht rather invest in yourself and the ones you love because life does not reward good works only hard work.

suhaif
suhaif

well i worked almost 2 years when i started working; just for the sack of gaining (Live) knowledge and work experience. Even today if somebody offers me to work or install a technology when i m not used to, well i will do it free of cost.

smithtx
smithtx

Yes, I've been there. Working for free, when it comes to friends and family, is typically worth it. I figure that "it will come back to you" in greater measure. Dennis WirelessJobs.com

Wayne M.
Wayne M.

I have seen far too many professionals who simply take pride in the number of overtime hours they work. What irritates me, however, is the lack of respect often given to those of us who can actually get our work done in the alotted work week.

zlitocook
zlitocook

I guess I am in a small group here I think what you do will come back to you. If you give a service for free it will help you in the long run. I have fixed many laptops, computers and networking problems for free and have received great things for doing this. I have never asked for compensation for any work done but the people and companies will give great gifts. I work full time for a great company and get paid well so I do not need extra money but it would be nice if I received it. I do this in my spare time and have received gift cards from Best Buy, Sears, Office Depot and others for amounts that were more then the fix. I like to work on computers and laptops it is what I like to do.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Hey Joseph, glad to see you here. Thanks for commenting. Yes, taking over someone else's work is a thankless task. Nobody ever knows how much time you spend just digging through what was there before trying to figure out what they were up to. Peopletech looks like a pretty cool initiative. Good job on helping them out.

apotheon
apotheon

Charitable contribution is always a good, valid reason for offering free work, if you really believe in the cause (and if it's a good one, of course). I'll take this opportunity to welcome you to TR, in response to your first discussion post here.

lipsticknlies
lipsticknlies

But then again what I get back more than pays for it. I get my manicures and pedicures for free. My leg waxings are free. I have a mechanic who only charges me for parts on my car and not labour charge. And a wonderful woman who does my ironing as long as I give her an hour lesson per week teaching her to use the pc! My life is sweet :)

a.barry
a.barry

Another reason - You've downloaded the software, got the O'Reilly books, done a few toy applications, and consider yourself ready for a challenge. You can PAY someone to teach you what you just learned, or find a project you can do for free which doesn't cost you anything but your time. You might even get free coffee.

Matt Peacock
Matt Peacock

I have no problem in helping out clients with a quick 10 minute fix while onsite for free. Heck - I'll even call in when passing to help them out. Family is kinda given. Nearly always helping out - although now I live 5000 miles away from them, I get fewer requests. Friends, I dont mind helping out. Especially when they have a truck and I am moving in the near future. The thing that does make me a little more hesitant is when you are invited to 'a friend - of a friend' to hang out or , only to walk through the door and be greeted with "Hi, So my computer's broken. It's over here" and promptly be seated in a dark corner, while the 'friends' and host go back to the pool/bar/garden/. A little negative for a Monday morning but I have been here since 5am... :-)

brad
brad

From the number of posts here, it seems that working for free is part of doing business. I have never met a businessman or businesswoman that has not provided free services or assets to a client sometime during their career. In most of these cases, the person is either trying to build a relationship, or hoping the investment will provide some sort of valued return, be it money, chocolate, or karma. Whenever I provide services to family members, I usually spend more time getting to know my family better than working on the problem. I have heard more war stories from my grandfather and uncle while fixing their PCs than I care to remember. Since I'm not working for free right now, I'm ending this reply...

Mike Page
Mike Page

I've been donating my time to help a couple nonprofits with IT issues. It has resulted in making friendships and referrals for jobs that pay money. Furthermore, I get the good feelings associated with helping out causes I believe in. It is possible to be leaned on too heavily, and you need to put the brakes on if that occurs. Fortunately, most people respect your time and value your help.

Ollie J
Ollie J

If a friend asks for help then I'll help them, if they ask too often I explain that I can't do it for nothing and when I get the customary sigh and question about how much I'll charge I simply ask them to pay me what they think the help was worth to them. I don't expect them to really stump up much (Sometimes they give nothing!) but they usually buy a few beers or perhaps a meal out and then everyone's happy. It also has the bonus that it usually makes them think hard before asking for more help but doesn't make me feel like I'm overcharging a friend.

catseverywhere
catseverywhere

Technically, all your labor applied toward your basic survival is barter. (hopefully) it's an equal exchange, and with the high division of labor in the modern world, currencies smooth out that exchange. My boss does not grow all the food I need, nor can he fix my car... Now, most of the work I have done over the last 6 years has been for "free," though as others have stated, "it comes back around." Just the way I am. I haven't had a "position" in over 8 years. Seeing as how pursuit of happiness (property) is an unalienable right, the exchange of your labor-for-anything by way of 'remuneration' is an untaxable activity. i.e. there is no "income tax" on wages or barter receipts as these are the equal exchange of your labor in pursuit of survival. You do NOT have "income." That is defined as what's left after a profit/loss statement is prepared. When was the last time you were allowed to do that? I pointed this out to the US supreme court and they agreed with me.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Yes, I once worked for a company that did tax software. During the ramp up for release just prior to tax season there was almost a competition between programmers over who worked the most overtime hours. We'd regularly put in 80-100 hours a week. But you know, running on afterburners for months at a time actually saps productivity. Not to mention destroying the rest of your life.

msquared
msquared

My clients are generally organisations and I often get caught up in working for nothing on the personal computing problems of my contact managers. It all seems to work well because if I have the occasional quoting problem or overrun due to my mistake, they will usually allow me to re quote on the run. This makes for a good relationship.

jck
jck

(assuming free = no money/paycheck) a) i get free, good homemade food b) i get free alcohol c) i get something in trade d) she is REALLY gorgeous and wants to spend time with the big chic geek :^0

ChipMicro
ChipMicro

One situation where I have (and I feel others should as well) worked for free concerns the learning curve. There are a couple of reasons someone hires you to do work - they lack the knowledge, or they lack the time. If you present yourself as one who has the knowledge, they can pay for the time. However, if there is something you don't know how to do, you re-enter the world of the imformed novice. The customer shouldn't have to pay for a lack of knowledge/skills, especially since, once learned, those skills will be used for other clients to generate additional income for the consultant. Paying a consultant to learn something is like providing a scholarship to a college student without the potential tax benefits. If a client figures out something you didn't know, or you take so much time to learn and bill them for it, and they balk because in the same amount of time the hired experts took to learn how to do it the client did it and implemented it, then you really have no business flying the banner of expert, and should eat the cost of the learning to preserve your reputation. Too many consult to try to create dependencies to milk future work from. The standard I follow is that I will complete your project and transfer the knowledge to you sufficient that you can maintain and have a healthy level of knowledge for your solution. What that actually means is more future work from referrals and for future expansions of what has been done. Future expansion = additional knowledge, which means that yoiu can haul in a whole new type of client who isn't looking to do the entry-level thing and who knows that they will need to pay dearly for the ninja-level knowledge they are about to benefit from. Give a man a fish, and he will have a meal, but teach him to fish, and he'll pay a lot to rent your trawler, because you taught him how to steer the boat...

AlexNagy
AlexNagy

I can't think of anything myself, not having read the other comments in this thread, I'd have to say that those six you listed are pretty comprehensive as well as being some of the best reasons to work for free.

Womble
Womble

If someone is about to do something that will make your life hell for an inordinate amount of time, you can often do something like this to save a major cost at a later date - exampe, a client may be about to deploy a product that you know will be incompatible with the stuff you manage. Working with them now ids much more beneficial that just waiting for it to crash an burn later

chilango02
chilango02

Well, if you are in talks with someone who is interested in hiring you, its more than okay to give them a taste of what the real thing (i.e., your actual work) would be. (Which, to be honest, might fall in the "marketing" category already mentioned here...)

GreyTech
GreyTech

A little help for my friends or family is not begrudged. Help for a number of charities is normal. Some marketing lubrication is not unheard of. However as was said earlier care must be taken not to undervalue yourself. If you charge nothing without good justification then you will be valued as nothing. I always make it clear, if I am not charging my normal rate, why I am giving a freebie or discount. One of those reasons is a policy I have of "No Fix, No Fee" The other is if the problem is new to me and I need to learn how, the customer does not pay for my learning time. Another is if I feel that I have taken longer than I should have done to solve a problem, then I suggest that the extra time is at my expense.

DoubleBarrel
DoubleBarrel

I have as a customer a small city in the area. Their accountant made some large overspending mistakes and left with the City about 1,000,000 overspent. I sometimes will make a visit free to one of the entitys (Police Department, City Hall, Library) or cut back the hours bid to fix an emergency and include it in the price. They have been a good customer for almost 15 years and if it will help them through this time will probably be a good customer for another 15.

steven.alker
steven.alker

I?m a new member here and will fill out my biography shortly. My work in CRM, Databases, Forecasting and Analysis has all had a marketing slant, so I give my time freely to a marketing forum on: http://www.marketingprofs.com/ea/ Despite (!) my sales and marketing background, I have gained a number of database engineering qualifications and a wide experience of MS Office technology. I try to keep to some simple rules for free work. If it?s for friends or acquaintances, ask them whether they?d be happy inviting their mate who is a plumber to go and spend an evening fixing their lavatory! For those businesses without the means to pay for a job, I offer some on-line assistance with their situation until they can afford our software or services. For NFP?s I?ll do what I can, but in my own time and for fun. I?ve never been a fan of trades unions, but I do feel that every time I do a job on a wrecked laptop for a small business, I?m spending a long time doing a job which badly which a professional engineer could have done correctly, in a short time and earned an appropriate fee. I therefore refer people where appropriate and expect the same in return where my expertise counts.

dglovin
dglovin

Freinds, family, to gain a new client. Sometimes a freebie for the bigwigs at the companies I contract with. Sometimes for struggling businesses to help them get back on their feet. It's a Karma thing. Pay it forward.

mjd420nova
mjd420nova

I barter my services and will even throw in some extra hardware. Parts and software have to be paid by the end user but my labor could cost you some of the FREE services you have to offer. No money changes hands. Charity is another way of saying FREE but it costs me to get there and back plus I usually make a cash donation too.

dnelsonwc
dnelsonwc

Maybe, but that's how it goes sometimes. We all have those "give an inch take a mile" people that we just need to pare out of the picture. I've got one such email that needs to be replied to... (blah blah "I need you to set up my static IPs" blah blah "setup a mail server" blah blah "for my computer consulting business" blah blah... wait, what? I'm doing this so you can make money doing, supposedly, what you're just now asking me to do? HELL NO)

jgruber
jgruber

I am with Mike here. I have had the opportunity to help out a few nonprofits in my area with some spare time. I have a wife and 3 kids (all 3 are involved in sports) and my spare time is scarce. Being able to help out companies that otherwise couldn't afford my services never feels like I am stealing from my family. I never let the projects get too out of hand and I let them know up front that I am doing this on my time and it has never once become an issue. We both benefit from the relationship and some of my "free" work has turned into payed work and actually led to one of my previous positions.

tim.mcgovern
tim.mcgovern

Many have given valid examples where "free" consulting might be appropriate. But working for free will cause the client to undervalue your future services. If you think your services are worth zero, the client will see it that way, too. I try to give the client more than they expect for a fair rate or price. As a marketing strategy, it is probably better to bill fairly and then discount your bill to what the client is prepared or willing to pay - but only one time.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

... the IRS saw it that way. Actually, as an independent, I'm only taxed on my profit as shown on Schedule C. Talk to your tax accountant about what kinds of expenses you can take off your income if you setup shop as a sole proprietor, corporation, or partnership.

Locrian_Lyric
Locrian_Lyric

and the show-offs don't realize that if they work that many hours for free, they are actually LOWERING the worth of their work if they are on salary.

unhappyuser
unhappyuser

I have been doing this for years. I like helping people. I like seeing people happy. I'm a an IT professional. Combine those together and it's a recipe for success. I've charged "friends" before when they get to asking too much. I've played the "I'm too busy to help" with relatives. It works well to avoid those times when the father-in-law has installed one too many software packages on the laptop and now "it don't work". I like doing the freebies for groups that have small budgets. It feels good to help those with a cause. I help out seniors and try not to get paid but usually walk away with something. I've learned it's better to accept $5 or $10 than to keep saying no and insult them. The amount of food I'm given while "helping out" has added 10 to 20 pounds to my waistline. I guess that could be seen as a negative but I've enjoyed many a good meal and A LOT of chocolate! EMD

jdclyde
jdclyde

take the "day late and a dollar short" and multiply by about 700..... :D

fixit
fixit

I use fixed rates for things like virus removal and OS installs and if I am using their problem to teach myself some thing they still only pay what I normally charge. If I cant fix it they dont pay.

Big Ole Jack
Big Ole Jack

The work must be performed under her desk while she sits in her chair (been there..done that before....muahahaha) She must have a killer pair of legs and everything in between. ;-?

jstuhlmiller
jstuhlmiller

I tend not to want to work for free anymore except for occassions of a Good Cause like the cancer society or something of that sort. There will always be the case where you will need to give a few freebies if you made a mistake and I dont really think of that as working for free. I have even stopped assisting friends unless they are the ones that return the favor otherwise you end up spending all of your time and some of your money driving around town working for free. For clients even like the one you mentioned that is in a financial crunch what I do in this case is if I have worked 10 hours on a project for them I bill them for 10 hrs @ $125 an hour and then show them a goodwill discount of $25 per hour for a total of $250 discount.

jedmundson
jedmundson

I've done it too. I had a dentist who I learned from listening to some of his conversations, that he had a classic car rebuilt in trade for dental work. When I quit my job and started doing contract work, I made a deal for two crowns for me and one for my wife in exchange for setting up a small network in his office (he paid for all the hardware.) IN the end, we both were happy with the result.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Yes, I've done barter before, too. That works out well, because both parties essentially buy services at cost rather than retail (assuming an equal trade).

Big Ole Jack
Big Ole Jack

His life was so boring and shallow that the sole purpose of his existence was to spend time in the office and put in a minumum of a 10 hour workday. Management loved him but his coworkers hated him because he set a very bad example and convinced the IT managers that everyone else should work such crazy hours. The guy was on salary and practically sold his soul to the company, rarely took vacations, and had to be forced my management to take time off. He was obsessed with his job and had no other interests than to live in the office. I can understand wanting to work long hours if it's your own company and it directly benefits you, but when working for a huge corporate giant that couldn't give a rat's behind about you, I wouldn't work more than what I'm being paid for. I'm human, have a life, and cannot work such long hours without burning out and hitting a mental and physical brick wall.

Big Ole Jack
Big Ole Jack

and everything else which my bills account for.

Big Ole Jack
Big Ole Jack

somethings gotta keep us awake..dont ya think?

Womble
Womble

The traditional payment for those little bit's of extra work that are done gratis in australia is the slab, a box of 24 cans of beer, usually Victoria bitter or Fourex. This is untraceable, is tax free and somewhat of a courtesy. It occurs a bit less today due to heavy policing of drink driving laws

Timbo Zimbabwe
Timbo Zimbabwe

"what would a clever term for a bribe for an it professional?" It doesn't need a clever name, just plenty of it. ;)

Locrian_Lyric
Locrian_Lyric

is beer (a joke among mechanics) beer can be substituted for cash for many minor repairs... hmmmm.... what would a clever term for a bribe for an it professional?

TonytheTiger
TonytheTiger

barter my services for food! Especially homemade cookies :)

dalberts
dalberts

I know what your saying here. I have an aunt that occassionaly(not often) will have a computer problem and give me a call. Anytime she needs computer work done she has my entire family over for a 10 course meal of Turkey Mashed Potato's, Noodles, Dinner Rolls, etc and MORE THAN ENOUGH pie to feed about 20 people. I think that's more than enough compensation for my time. :)

jck
jck

but i saw someone post before me. I guess you never talked about a topic twice in two years, eh? :^0

Editor's Picks