When should I work for free?

Michele A’Court
Albertine Jonas
When to work for free, and when to ask for money.

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Wow! Our post from last week really got people talking. To refresh your memory, I caught up with artist Micheline Robinson about putting a price on creative talent. One of her tips was to never work for free when you’re doing business.

This tip generated a lot of discussion! There are loads of different views about working for free.

Based on these views, I think we can agree that there are some situations where it makes sense to work for free. Indeed, Micheline made that exact point when I spoke to her - she’s happy to work for free for charities and other causes.

The question, then, is when to work for free? When does it make sense to work for free, and when should you ask to be paid? What are some things you should think about when you’re deciding whether to work for free or not?

To get to the bottom of this, I caught up with two people: Albertine Jonas, an actor who, at 22, is just a few years into her career, and Michele A’Court, a comedian, writer and professional MC with more than 25 years experience.

It was interesting to see how aligned their views were. Here are their tips for judging when to work for free:

Find out why

Albertine does a lot of stage productions for free - but that’s because these production tend to be from smaller outfits that don’t have the money to pay actors. By contrast, she was certainly paid when she played a part in an ad for Spark’s rebrand!

Michele has a similar approach. “Sometimes, people will ask you to work for free just to save some money….I won’t work for free for these people.” Rather, Michele works for free when she’s working for a cause or an organisation that she really believes in. These naturally tend to be charities or social enterprises, which are more cash-strapped than a corporation or a government organisation. When her views align with the organisation’s views, and that organisation is one she supports, then she’s usually happy to work for free, or for a discount.

The rule of the thumb here is to only work for free when you’re working for an organisation that wouldn’t have been able to pay you, or someone else. This helps make sure you get paid what you’re worth, and it also helps protect other artists - because if you work for free when there was money available, you’re de-valuing other artists’ work.

Michele A’Court

Look for other benefits

Michele’s advice to younger artists is to ask themselves if a project is “going to give me a good set of tools and skills that will be useful for future jobs".” Albertine applies this thinking using her “rule of three.”  When she’s assessing a job, she looks at the project, the people and the money. She’ll only say yes if two or more of these are satisfactory.

For example, a project that won’t pay her at all needs to be a project she’s really excited about, and it needs to be with people she really wants to work with. Conversely, a project that she is less excited about needs to have great people, and pay as well.

This is a handy way for her to make sure she’s getting something out of her time and effort when she works for free.

It’s not all or nothing!

When you’re deciding whether to work for free or not, remember that there is a lot of middle ground between your standard rate, and nothing at all. Albertine sometimes does productions on a profit-share basis, rather than completely volunteering her time. “One of these ended up working out to about $10 an hour.  . . but I was still so stoked to be paid!”

Michele approaches this in a different way - for some organisations, she’ll offer a discount rather than offering to work completely for free. This serves two purposes. For one, it helps remind organisations that they are getting a good deal - if they know her usual rate, and she offers a steeply discounted rate, they get an idea of how much value she’s giving them through her time.

There’s also a practical reason: working can be expensive! If you need to travel somewhere, park, or maybe even rent a costume, then you can find yourself in a situation where you’re actually paying to work for free. This can be a bit of a sting, so sometimes Michele will ask for some money to pay her expenses.

It’s all about what you want

There’s no hard and fast rules for deciding when to work for free. Albertine has friends who will not work for free. As a consequence, they’ll go a year or more without working at all. This is a tradeoff they’re willing to make in order to make sure they get paid when they do work.

So it really comes down to you, your values and what you want to achieve. That’s how you make working for free, work for you.

Albertine Jonas

Written by

Sam Grover

31 May 2018

Sam loves telling quirky stories about The Big Idea’s community of artists and interviewing successful arts practitioners to gather insights about funding and commercialising their art. 

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