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How to tell someone you don't work for free

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I haven’t worked for free since Obama was President the first time. The more I own that my work has value, the less likely I am to accept doing anything I do professionally without getting paid. I stand firm in my convictions and refuse to settle for getting paid in exposure, because exposure won’t pay my student loans on time every month. Once I stopped agreeing to work for free, people who were more than willing to pay started to appear in my life more regularly.

Admittedly, this can be very hard to stick to, especially when people you really want to help request that you work for no pay. Just a few weeks ago, I was asked to draft and execute a social media strategy on a volunteer basis. It was for an event I really love and a cause I believe in, but I politely declined. I thought I would feel that tinge of guilt I often feel when I tell somebody “no". I even waited for it to come, but it never did.

I felt empowered enough and proud of myself enough for not falling for the scarcity mindset that makes many of us say yes to just about every opportunity, because who knows when the next one will come.

When I shared the above tweet, many folks asked what I say when I want to tell someone I don’t work for free, so I am sharing a few tips below:

1. If necessary, confirm that they are unwilling or unable to pay you for the service they are requesting.

This step can happen if you aren’t quite clear that it is an unpaid opportunity. Ask them directly if this is a volunteer or pro bono project. The goal is to make them say they can’t or won’t pay you. That can drive what your next move will be, and what boundaries you will need to set with them.

2. Summarize your level of experience and gently remind them that it is customary to be paid for your work.

You can say something like: “I have X years in my field, and have worked for company ABC doing [insert thing they want for free].” Believe it or not, it sometimes doesn’t even occur to the person asking you to work for free that it is a service that one should get paid for, as many people underestimate the value of our work. Don’t be afraid to gently push back on that mindset. Let them know that you are uncomfortable with and avoid giving away your professional talents and skills for no pay. Remember, do not back down, no matter how nicely they ask you to work without pay. Your skills are worth the financial investment.

3. If you’d like to, leave the door open for a good bartering arrangement.

This is totally optional - but I personally enjoy a good barter. Case in point: I helped a friend with some social media/personal branding for their business. i was about to get married and she was a budding fashion stylist in New York City. I needed someone to help style me for my wedding, so we bartered services - I helped her talk through her social media strategy, and she helped me pick a gown and accessories, and even helped pick the dress my bridesmaids wore. It was a win-win situation that was mutually beneficial for both of us, so in this case bartering wasn’t a bad alternative. Usually leaving that door open sounds something like this: “If you can give me more specifics about what you will need, I may be able to figure out a way to help you that is mutually beneficial for both of us.” You can also straight up ask if they are interested in bartering, but this is dependent on having knowledge about what services or resources they could provide.

After that, it is up to them how to proceed. This approach may not work for everyone, but the most important thing is that you do not, under any circumstances, settle for being paid in exposure. You work and your skills have value, and they are worth the investment.

This will be the beginning of a series about getting paid for your work. Next up, I’ll talk about the few instances where pro bono work could be useful, and when to accept it.

Loryn Wilson Carter