Most of the time, for obvious reasons, you want to be making money. However, sometimes it behooves you to volunteer your time, donate services, or simply work for free. This happens for a variety of reasons and can be a wonderful idea. But when is it a good idea and what should you avoid?
First, let’s talk about the why. Working for free is something you may want to do as a favor for a friend or connection, to build up skills or experience in an area you’d like to move into, to display your charitable side, or to gain connections in a field or at a specific institution. Regardless of your reason, you should always be getting something back. This is mostly for you – it’ll be easier to remain positive and motivated if the work becomes taxing if you have an end reward in place of payment.
When should you do this? When you have time and sufficient skills to be capable of the work and when it can be of use to you in the fairly immediate future. Do it when you can leverage the goodwill and connections soon or when you’re looking to apply to new jobs where that skill set may be useful. Never commit to do something if you don’t have time to do it or if you don’t know how to do it, no matter how appealing it may be.
And on that note, when should you not agree to work for free? As well as your own limitations, there are other factors to consider. If you’re seeing red flags from the organizer up top about how they will behave and treat you or about their own capabilities, get out quickly. If you’re volunteering (and sometimes even if you’re getting paid), working for someone who is extremely difficult or inept may cause you enough grief to outweigh the benefits. Additionally, avoid taking on projects you don’t believe in. Even if you think the position will look good on your resume, if you wouldn’t show the final product to someone, there’s no point.
Lastly, let’s talk about how to treat people when they work for free for you or donate goods or services. Remember to be gracious and appreciate what they can give you. If they have limitations on their time or capabilities, respect that. Don’t ask for more that they can’t give. They’re giving you a gift of time and energy and it is your job to ensure that they are supported and not overwhelmed with the work they’re being assigned. Expect and request the same for yourself in these situations. Make clear what you can do and what you can give. If we all treat each other with respect and dignity, magnificent work can get done.