Why Working For Free Undermines Your Professionalism

Why Working For Free Undermines Your Professionalism


When you do something you love, you want to share that passion with the world. Trust me, I know. I’ve been sharing my passion for years with family, friends, neighbors and that lady from my friend’s knitting club.

Why Working For Free Undermines Your Professionalism

In the name of friendship and a deep belief in what I do, I’ve been literally giving away free advice for years. Helping out a friend is always a good thing, don’t get me wrong.

Now that I’m trying to launch a business in the same area, I’m seeing how my years of goodwill might hurt my bottom line.

Why Working for Free Undermines Your Professionalism

Sharing my professional passions seemed so harmless at first. Help a friend design curriculum here, work on an IEP there. I was so happy to see others blossoming and growing more confident. In fact, I loved it so much that I started to build on that success. I wanted to turn my passion into a professional opportunity.

Which lead to problem No. 1…

Setting My Rate

When you’ve been working for free, your hourly or task-based rate is $0.

You have no prior clients to fall back on to scale your professional pricing. It is really hard to finish a project, even small or minor things, for which you have charged nothing and then turn around and ask another person to pay X amount of dollars for the same item.

Working for free (or setting the bar super low) skews your perception of your worth. You are doing what you love because you are good at it and enjoy the work. It’s hard enough to put a price on passion. Trying to get that just right pricing when everything before has earned you nothing is even harder.

It feels wonderful to see those you care about using your advice or talents to improve their lives. Building a reputation among your friends for good work is awesome. It leads to more connections and help.

It also creates another problem.

Drawing The Line

Let’s say you help Person A, a good friend, with Task X for free. They loved working with you and share your name to Person B, someone you’ve met a few times. Person B would love to work with you, but also heard that you helped your friend at no cost. Now they expect your services on their project for free too.

It’s easy to fall into this scenario.

Suddenly, everyone has heard that you are great at your job and work for free. Of course, now they are lining up around the block!

You are almost stuck giving your hard work away for little or nothing in return, other than the satisfaction of a job well done. If that works for you, great.

However, satisfaction doesn’t pay the bills.

Where can you draw that line? There are so many ripples in the pond of working for free. Would you give a friend of a friend pro bono work? What about a person you’ve never met and are not connected to?

All of this free work can lead to the third problem.

Freebie Limit

I’m all about giving away introductory help. I love to point people in the direction of resources I recommend or share a bit of quick advice to smooth out a rough patch. This assistance can get tricky when the larger requests come into play.

If you’ve been sharing all of your work for free to family, friends and the guy down the road, why would people want to pay you? More importantly, it’s now almost impossible to turn a friend into a client. Because you’ve been giving it away, all the people you’ve helped will continue to expect free goods or services forever.

And if you keep giving it away for free, even when you know you should be charging, you run into even more problems.

Lack of Credibility

Sure, it’s nice to get things for free. My hairdresser will sometimes throw in a free quick style after a cut. A personal trainer might share a fun mini-workout with clients. The important thing here is that my trainer and my hairdresser are sharing things to already paying customers. I pay them for their services because I’m assuming they have special knowledge or expertise in that field.

If they didn’t charge, I might not have chosen them. Or I might have assumed that they were still learning and not experienced enough to do the full job.

When you don’t charge for something that you are an expert at or passionate about, you are undermining your value in that field. You’re essentially saying:

“I don’t know enough about this, but take these small bits of knowledge I do have.”

I mean, would you trust a stockbroker or a doctor who operated in that manner? Of course not!

Setting a rate, fee or price point shows potential clients that you have weight and worth and value. Your clients will be investing their hard-earned dollars with an expert who can give them excellent services or amazing products in return.

This sets you up as a respected professional in your field.

You now have credibility.

And credibility is a good thing.

Walking This Line Is A Struggle

Finding my own place in the give it away/charge for it world is a struggle almost daily. I see many people who could benefit from my particular services. I want to help them and fix the problems for them. It can be hard to hold back.

In fact, I broke all of my rules today to help someone in desperate need.

It’s OK to fail sometimes and work for free.

For me, it helps to remember that every project I tackle pro bono is a professional (paid) project I couldn’t take on.

Do you struggle with working for free? Share your story in the comments.



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