If you’re relatively new to the freelance game, or even if you’re well-established with a lot to offer, you’ll likely get asked to offer up your services pro bono.

“We can’t pay anything, but it will be great exposure!”

This was my number one warning sign of a sucky clientNo matter how much you like doing what you do, you work to make money, and if you don’t respect your own time no one else will either. That said, there are exceptions to every rule, for both rookie and veteran freelancers. So when is it ok to forget the invoice and work for free?

Short answer: rarely.


If you want clients you need a portfolio (or some form of résumé). But you can’t build a portfolio without clients. Ah, the vicious amateur circle. Here’s looking at you, college grads. I don’t envy you. First of all, if you have zero experience and zero clients you probably shouldn’t be freelancing.

But Matt, you said…

Yeah, yeah. Jump in, suck, and figure it out. The thing is, you need somewhere to jump.

Start here. Then build your résumé by offering up your services to people you know. Think of it as an internship. Hone your skills, learn as much as possible, but then — and this is important — get the fuck outta there. People who get something for free typically don’t go out of there way to stop getting that thing for free. (This is why you should always go dutch on the second date… who’s with me?) Freelance work typically involves one-off projects, so set a limit on how many “-offs” you’re willing to endure.

A couple words of caution: Don’t necessarily admit to being an amateur. Say you’re expanding your skillset or growing your portfolio (both are true). Many people respect that, but they won’t be as receptive if they read you as desperate. I mentioned going to people you know first — that’s why.

Exposure / Notoriety

There’s a really simple rule of thumb about gaining exposure: Have you heard of the client? If not, they’re probably full of shit (with rare exceptions). Sucky clients often offer up this line for one of two reasons: 1) they have overly-grandiose ideas of what they are or can be; 2) they just want you to work for free.

Ask yourself what you’re really getting in return. If you do a branding project for your famous friend, but she never mentions you… what did you gain? If you’re at the beginning of your career, great. That’s a huge résumé builder. If you don’t need a résumé builder, what did you get — tagged in an Instagram post? Probably won’t have prospective clients blowing up your inbox.

Ask for, and negotiate, specifics. Ask where your work will be displayed/distributed and how you’ll be credited. If some blogger asks you to write for free, ask to see his traffic analytics (trust me, he’s got them). If someone asks you to speak ask how many people will be there, whether or not your talk will be recorded, and how it (you) will be advertised. If Taylor Swift asks you to design her next album cover… well, first ask why a global superstar billionaire is such a fucking cheapskate, but then do it.

A great cause

Philanthropy is important. It looks good and feels good. If you feel strongly about a cause, offer up your services as a way of volunteering. Hell, it beats handing out flyers at a 5k. (Or running a 5k for that matter.) Again though, set limits on your time and services. Not everyone who takes advantage of free work is a bad, but non-profits are usually so desperate for free work that they’ll push the limits. (But if you’re a beginner, use this to your advantage!)

If you’re going to do volunteer work, however, it should be for a cause you really believe in. I’ve done work for a non-profit before (and it was a great cause), but I had no personal connection to it. The work got old very quickly. That said, reducing your rate to boost the philanthropic section of your portfolio isn’t a bad idea at all.

A friendly favor

I only mention this because it will happen. Don’t do it for anyone other than your mom (maybe). But you will. I’ve done it.

Friends take advantage. I’m not saying your friends are shitty (necessarily), but that’s what friends do. It’s good to have friends who can do things for you. It’s nice to do things for your friends. However, favors shouldn’t include things you do to earn a living. Take your friend to the airport, help them move, be their sperm donor… but don’t work for free.

What I’ve done is charge out of principle. It doesn’t have to be your full freight, but it should be something. Call it a “friends and family discount” if you want. Just like prospective clients, your friends should know you value your time. And if you do offer a friends and family discount, make sure they know they’re getting it. Not so you can hold it over your head (although that can be fun too), but so they don’t advertise that price to other non-friends who think they can get you for cheap.

Knowing your worth is one of the most difficult things about freelancing. Even if you’re still figuring it out, your time is valuable. Set goals and then work to meet them, and if that means going full gratis, make sure you’re still benefitting. And if you’re on your second date… split the check.