Fair Work Agreements — Why You Should Say No to (Almost All) Free Work

By Elizabeth Wellington, Contributor, on March 6, 2017

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A lot of companies want extra help for free. They promise freelancers awesome exposure and great references, which can appeal to emerging independent contractors. But what sets freelancing apart from a hobby is that you’re a professional, and you should be treated as such.

In fair work agreements, companies compensate for freelancing in some way, whether through direct compensation or trading services. If a company doesn’t have the budget to pay, see if you can trade 10 hours of your time for 10 hours of their time. Most likely, there’s a skill they can offer you in return. When an organization won’t budge and refuses to pay you, consider whether the work fits into these exceptions. If not, use the following template to say no.

Exceptions to the Rule

As with any guideline, there are exceptions to my “I don’t work for free” rule. Since I started freelancing, I’ve budged for these two specific examples:

  1. When the project can seriously impact your career.

Everyone has a time in their career when they’re trying to build their freelance portfolio. In this stage of your career, you need to make strategic decisions about setting the foundation for a strong online presence. If a project will have a long-term effect on your career, you may want to consider taking it on for free. Only you can determine when this is the case. As you advance in your career, be more selective about the projects falling under this umbrella.

  1. When you’re working for a charity.

Every once in a while, I’ll take on a project I’m passionate about for a charity or nonprofit that aligns with my values. I think of the work as a donation of my time and skill set. These nonprofit projects can also boost your portfolio, especially when you’re just starting out. If you’re interested in charity work, check out Catchafire, an awesome platform for freelancers looking to connect with impactful organizations.

How to Politely Say No

If a freelance project doesn’t fit into those two exceptions, politely turn it down. Learning how to say no is an essential skill for freelancing. The more comfortable you feel asserting your boundaries as a professional, the easier it becomes. I created a template to respond to people who ask me to work for free:

Hi there!

Thank you for letting me know you’re looking for help with _________. I appreciate you reaching out, but as a professional, I don’t accept unpaid work. I always recommend organizations pay their freelancers. It guarantees the quality of the work and supports a group of thriving, skilled professionals who bring their unique perspectives to every project.

Best of luck with this project!

Think about creating your own template to say no to unpaid requests of your time. Simply copy-and-pasting an email like this allows you to quickly respond to awkward and intrusive emails without burning bridges.

As an independent contractor, I’ve learned the phrase, “Freelancing should never be free.” is absolutely true. Your work is valuable, and advocating for its worth through fair work agreements can only create positive outcomes. This shared approach also supports the freelancing community as a whole, keeping rates high and setting a precedent for professionalism across industries.

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