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?