Never work for free?

Paul Boag

I recently said on twitter that you should never work for free, but is that really true? Are there occasions when it is okay to do web work for no financial return?

Please note: This was a very hastily thrown together post in response to a twitter conversation. Sometimes 140 characters is not enough!

My Tweet: Gobsmacked at the number of people willing to do something for nothing. Stop it guys! Never work for free. EVER!

Unsurprisingly this strong statement got a reaction. Of course, there are occasions when you might choose to work for nothing, but not as many as you might think.

Let’s look at some of the reasons people give.

“It will be great publicity”

Will it? Will it really? People say that all the time but do not both to consider the statement in detail.

Take for example my case. The comment above was born out of a joke I made suggesting somebody might want to migrate the entire boagworld to WordPress for me because I was too lazy. People started to offer to do this for free because they thought it would be good publicity.

My Tweet: Anybody fancy migrating boagworld over to movable type for me? I cannot be bothered but want it to happen. Before you ask, no budget.

Think that through for just a second. I had agreed to no kind of publicity. However, lets imagine for a moment I had. What is the best publicity I could offer? A link on the site? A mention on the podcast? Would that for a minute make up for the hours/days of work that would have to go into that migration exercise. Of course not! The return on investment is just too low.

Before agreeing to do a project because it will be good publicity, ask yourself whether that time could be spent publicising yourself in other ways that are more effective.

“I work on a open source project”

In my opinion this is not working for free. This is investing in a product you use on a daily basis. You work on the project to enhance it so the end result is more valuable to you.

“It will be good for my portfolio”

Sure it might be, but as with publicity there are probably better ways to spend your time to improve your portfolio. What about developing your own site? What about building a web application?

There is a value in working with real clients. However, a client that does not pay is not a real client. The relationship is different because they are not paying for your services.

“I cannot charge friends and family”

Agreed. You cannot charge family. I myself am currently building a site for my dad and I wouldn’t consider charging him.
However, I feel a bit differently about friends. Why is it acceptable for your friends to ask you to build a website for free? If I had a friend who was an architect I wouldn’t ask him to design me a house for free! I certainly wouldn’t ask my friend who is a doctor to check me for prostate cancer!
My point is that we work in one of those professions where people feel they have the right to ask favours. I don’t think that is fair and I don’t believe we should allow friends to abuse our friendship.
Finally, I know that my close friends wouldn’t ask me to do a website for free. They have always offered to pay and admitted I rarely take it, but at least they offer.

“It’s for charity”

I am torn over this one. I have done charity work for free but I am coming to believe it is a mistake. Even a minimal charge helps to establish a better working relationship.

Charging has two benefits. First it gives you credibility and the client has to respect that you are a professional. Second, it gives the charity the right to comment on and participate in the build. Often if you do not charge they don’t feel they can say anything if they are unhappy.

One approach I have used in the past is to charge the client and then donate the money back to the charity at the end. That way you have the benefits of a paid relationship without the guilt :)

By taking this approach you are stressing that your skills are of value and should be chargeable. The donation is a separate decision which you can decide to make if you so wish.


If you follow me on twitter or listen to the podcast you will know I give away a lot of my time and money for free. I run a youth group, participate in a church and give away a substantial portion of my income.

However, I draw a distinction between my profession as a web designer and my personal life. I believe what we do is valuable and so should be a chargeable service.

Of course, I also recognise that this is an intensely personal area and everybody has to make their own decisions. I just hate to see people undervalue their skills. You are worth more than ‘free!’