March 10, 2022

How to deal with work for free requests as a freelancer

Written by Olivia Bufton

One of the biggest shocks of becoming a freelancer is just how often people seem to think the “free” in your job description is a guide to your rates.

No one would ever walk into a shop and say, “could I just take this without paying?”. Or have a haircut and tell the stylist they would get great “exposure”, but no money in return for their work and skill. For some reason, a culture of “work for free” requests does exist around many freelance occupations in a way that just doesn’t happen in other sectors. This is especially pervasive in creative and media roles, many of which are freelance.

Freelance work is a job like any other and deserves a fair rate of pay in line with your experience and skills. But being broached with a request to work for free can be an awkward situation to navigate. We’ve put together a guide for how freelancers can bat away those requests and make sure that you’re always being paid for your time.

Why shouldn’t I work for free as a freelancer?

Here are just a few reasons why we advise against taking on work for free:

  • You are working and should be paid for your time – your rent or mortgage, bills, and food shopping can’t be paid with “exposure”.
  • Even if you can afford to work for free, that is a privilege available only to a few. Normalising unpaid work in your industry leads to a lack of diversity and paid opportunity for everyone.
  • It’s unlikely to lead to paid work with that client, no matter how much they promise – why would they decide to start paying you when they’ve been having your work for free?
  • If your paying clients find out you’ve been doing similar work for free, they might start to question your rates too – it devalues your work.

Just say no!

All “work for free” requests should be greeted with a polite but firm “no”. We’ll be frank, there’s a good chance you’ll never hear from that “client” again, but if they were just trying it on, being polite leaves the door open for negotiation on a fee if they want the job doing. Feel free to quote your desired rate for the job they’ve asked for, or attach a rates card so they can see your standard charges. Be prepared for them to haggle – so stick firm to your rates, or quote generously in the first place so you can give them a “discount”. If a person continues to press for free work, answer more firmly and ignore any other requests. It’s not worth your time.

You may encounter this a lot throughout your freelance career, particularly if you’re in a profession like illustration, graphic design or web design. It’s worth having a standard response pre-written that you can just amend and send so that dealing with work-for-free requests doesn’t take up a huge amount of your time.

Get back-up from a freelancing community

If it feels scary standing up to clients, make sure other people have your back. There are great freelancing communities out there like Freelance Heroes and The Freelancer Club, where you can talk to people in the same boat. Other freelancers will be a great source of advice and support as they’re likely to have similar experiences throughout their careers.

Set expectations with clients

Even once you’ve agreed a fair rate with a client and started work on a project, there’s still potential for the expectation of free work to creep in – on any job. Could you just amend that logo again, for the thirteenth time? We just need a couple more pages on this website. Would you stay another couple of hours to capture the first dance?

If a project starts to expand beyond the work that was originally agreed upon, without any mention of additional payment, that’s called scope creep. Make sure you start each project with a clear, agreed brief that outlines the parameters of the job (either in hours worked or deliverables) and what the expectations are for each side. For example, if you’re a copywriter, graphic designer or web designer, set a limit on the number of rounds of free amends. It can also be helpful to include in your contract an idea of your additional hourly or daily rate for work not included in the original brief. Get more tips for dealing with scope creep from our in-depth blog on the topic.

Make sure you get paid

Of course, getting a client to agree to a rate is only part of the battle; you still have to make sure they pay it at the end of the project. Consider asking for a deposit or half payment in advance if it’s a new client, a large piece of work, or if you sense any red flags that they might not pay up at the end of the project. Invoice clients promptly at the end of a job and highlight your payment terms on the invoice. Send reminder emails just before an invoice will be overdue. If, despite your chasing, you still find yourself without the money in your bank, Dingy’s Freelancer Assist can help. We offer a unique invoice-chasing service, where if a debt of more than £200 is unpaid, and you’re not having any luck getting your client to cough up, our team of legal experts will step in and recover the debt on your behalf. Freelancer Assist also includes access to legal, tax and counselling helplines and comes bundled for free with all of our insurance policies.

Avoiding working for free is a key way to ensure the long-term sustainability and professionalism of your freelance career. So is having proper freelancer insurance cover in place to protect you and your clients if anything goes wrong. To sort out your freelance small business insurance, head to the Dinghy website. You can get an instant quote for freelance insurance cover for your self-employed work, whether you need professional indemnity, public liability, business equipment cover or all three. All our policies are flexible to fit in with freelance life – you can pay monthly, pause your policy when you’re not working, and there are no hidden admin fees or interest charges.

About Olivia Bufton

Read more blog posts by Olivia Bufton


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