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Working for Free is for Chumps and Philanthropists

To begin this post, I'd like to ask a client and friend, Suzanne, to relate something that happened to her recently. Suzanne is a talent agent, and she was approached to refer some of the members of her roster for an acting gig. She'll take it from here...

Today I had to tell a potential client that no, I couldn’t help him find models to work his event for free. “This job isn’t paid, but it’s exposure so can’t you help me?” I replied: “I do not get paid until my people get paid. Neither my people, nor my children, can eat exposure.” I work really really hard. Being an agent involves hours and hours of work, developing trust in working relationships, curating careers, and YES, emotional labor. This all happens behind the scenes, long before an actor gets an “are you available?” text. You want my services? It’s gonna cost you. There are good reasons to take pro bono jobs, but let’s not kid ourselves here. “Exposure” usually involves introducing the talent to more people who want their services for nothing!

I couldn't possibly be prouder of Suzanne. It's hard to say no, particularly for women, because we love to help people out, and we love to be liked. But, as she rightly points out, that won't pay the bills.

On the other hand, there are times when volunteering our expertise and services are worthy. I've advised it from time to time. However, it shouldn't be when someone thinks they can cajole you into working for free because they can, and they'd simply prefer not to pay for something. If that's how things worked, no one would ever pay for anything, because it's not like people enjoy giving their money away when they don't have to.

What irritates me most is the unmitigated gall of even asking someone to engage in their trade for free. Would you call a plumber and ask them to install a toilet for free? You know, for the exposure? No. "But Michelle, when you're a new plumber you have to apprentice for a while first." Yes, that's true, and plumber's apprentices are well paid. DON'T WORK FOR FREE, PEOPLE. When you work for free, you're not only a chump, but you're making it easier for that same scam artist to turn around and ask the next person to work for free, too.

So, how do you make the distinction?

1. It's for a truly good cause. If you're going to work for free, make sure there's an actual, deserving individual on the receiving end of your giving. On a personal note, I have volunteered my time to offer job readiness workshops to an organization I'm quite fond of, called Never Alone Again, which serves women escaping domestic violence (hint hint, it's time for your end-of-year giving!). I've always walked away from those events feeling like I helped these women, the response is very positive, and I get some nice photos for my website. Everyone wins!

2. The exposure is actually valuable. If the kind of exposure will net you a really strong link in your network, or paid bookings, it's a clear win. However, it's hard to tell whether or not it will pay off until you actually do the work, quite often. So, when I get a request for a volunteer gig with unclear returns, I have a conversation. What, exactly, do you mean by exposure? Who will be there? What organizations can I network with? There needs to be a value proposition for me. I'm running a business, and I can't continue to do that if I'm always caving on my earnings.

3. You're just starting out. In the beginning, particularly in a business where you are trading your expertise for pay, your business will be driven by the recommendation of others. That's usually accomplished by referrals or testimonials. When you're first established, you don't have either, so taking a few jobs gratis or for a reduced fee helps for that precious exposure. Just make sure you're up front about wanting a testimonial for your website, because that will help you get your paid bookings shortly thereafter. And, to be clear, you shouldn't do very many of those.

Beware, as well, of the well-endowed not-for-profit. There are some organizations with very rich endowments that, despite plenty of money to play around with, still use their status to ask people to work for free. I've had non-profit clients that operate out of brownstones in Manhattan, so trust me, they can afford you. It doesn't stop them from asking. Just as I don't mind asking for discounts when none were offered, so too will businesses that solicit you. Just as I get turned down at Bed Bath and Beyond when I forget my coupons, so too can you turn someone down when they ask for free services when there's no eminent need. When you politely decline, you may find that they suddenly become able to pay, after all.

As always, I'm open to your input. What's your line in the sand? Leave your comments below!

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