When it’s OK to Work For Free (Really!)

There have a been a flurry of articles in the mom blogging space over the past year about mom bloggers who work for free and how you should never, ever do it.  I wrote one myself for Mom Blog Magazine.  You’ve heard it before: You cheapen everybody’s work; you make it harder for anyone to be taken seriously and get paid; you are a chump building someone else’s business without getting anything in return.  And, all of that is true – sometimes.  One of the things that bothers me about this dogmatic approach to the topic of being paid is that often it is hurled by people I know have worked – and continue to work – for free in some instances.  The other thing is, it’s not so clear-cut.  I’ve written previously about why you shouldn’t work for free – but taking stock of my year and really my last four years since I started blogging – I think it’s important to talk about when it’s okay to accept work that doesn’t come with cash compensation.

  1. YOU ARE NEW TO BLOGGING – It’s a big, wide blogosphere out there and building readership and traffic is daunting.  Joining a blog community where you are posting with a group of other women can give you an automatic group of colleagues and support.  You will not drive a ton of traffic from these sites – no matter what they say to the contrary – but you will start to feel like you belong, meet other bloggers and build links back to your site.  I started out writing for Silicon Valley Mom’s NYC Mom Blog site and then for the Yahoo! Motherboard and those two communities gave me the connections and friendships that are far and away the most valuable I have today – both personally and professionally.  I don’t regret writing for them for free for a moment.
  2. YOU WANT TO BUILD YOUR EXPERT REPUTATION:  There are sites that can provide a much bigger soapbox for your views than your blog.  Again, they will not throw you tons of traffic, so don’t fall for that, but they can give you a platform and a legitimacy that your blog alone will not.  When the Washington Post asked to re-post an education piece I had written I did not hesitate to say yes.  It enhanced my standing as an education writer and advocate and gave me a great byline to point to when applying to paying gigs in the field.  As long as you own your content and you are seeing the benefit then you should consider it.
  3. YOU WILL GET EXCLUSIVE ACCESS TO EVENTS OR INTERVIEWS: Let’s face it, you are just one of many bloggers trying to get press passes, invites and other access to brands and events.  If you don’t have the clout (or Klout) to obtain those on your own then having the byline and credentials from a much larger site can help.  I have attended many conferences, expos and events thanks to my affiliation with Yahoo! Motherboard.  It’s a name those outside of the blogging world understand.  To me, that was valuable.

Like I said in the beginning, nothing is black and white.  You have to go with your gut and you have to feel like what you are contributing is being respected and acknowledged accordingly – cash or otherwise.  You also have to be realistic about your worth.  Only you know what is right for you.  What do you think?  Would you or do you work for free?

28 replies on “When it’s OK to Work For Free (Really!)”

  1. I never even considered this as an issue since I’m new to blogging. If someone ever asked me to write something for them, I’d jump at the chance and probably not even consider what it means to other bloggers if I wrote for free and it screwed them over. Hmmm…should there be a bloggers union? 🙂

  2. Thanks for sharing your perspective, Becca. I agree that there are circumstances when it’s okay to work/blog without receiving monetary compensation.

    I like to think of work in terms of ROI: Will using my time in this way give me a platform, help a good cause, provide a fun experience for my family, etc? Sometimes the benefits go beyond cash.

  3. I am glad I read this piece…..as I transition from establishing myself to being a “real blogger” I was feeling guilty over my free writing, BUT without it I would be nowhere! Thanks —

  4. Fabulous post and I agree! You do not always get a check for the work you do as a blogger, but the value it gives you in adding to your experience, expertise, and even resume can make up for that. Opening doors to other paid experiences is a big perk also. I work with a major tech company as primarily unpaid, but it opens lots of doors with other brands (and them) for paid opps as well.

    Sometimes in the beginning to you need to nurture a relationship. There is some give and take that happens – I have built may working PAID relationships out of things I started out with as free.

    I still do some “free” (not cash) work even at this point and it is working out well for me.

  5. Such great points, and so true. Everyone needs to draw their personal line, and it may change from one year (or one month) to the next. I could not agree more about the exposure and experience from being part of DC’s SV Moms— I met so many amazing people that I have been able to collaborate with and develop friendships with. As the founder of a group blog I have struggled because I cannot pay my writers, trying to find a balance between working with brands so that I can compensate the group in some way, and keeping our authenticity. I am just appreciative of the fact that they are lending their voice, but know that they too need to take stock in their priorities, and if those change, that is ok too.

  6. I’ve written for free and it has lead to paying jobs and written for free and it lead to great exposure and bigger and better things. I’ve also gotten paid peanuts and it meant nothing but aggravation. I think you have to weigh each and every opportunity and what it means to you. There is no right answer for everyone.

  7. Patience is a virtue and of course when one is new to a particular field, finding work and all is rather difficult and in some cases working for free at first is not a bad idea at all. It will push you forward — not financially — but professionally 🙂 Thanks for sharing such a greatly informative post!

  8. I agree this is not a simple right or wrong issue. The total picture is also important and where the work can lead. I posted a magazine ad for free to support a friend and a paid opportunity turned up. I post charity type announcements for PR folks that I have developed a relationship with to support them and I know when they can, they will support me.
    Everyone tells me not to pay my own postage re giveaways. I use it as a partial oportunity to get rid of my own inventory and to build traffic. Now I have advertising offers, so for me this system worked/paid off. Who’s to say?
    We can only offer our blog friends our opinions, ultimately we have to figure out our own paths and try to not be so judgemental, everyone has their own agenda.

  9. Totally agree. I liken wanting to get paid for blogging on day one to the same thing as trying to just walk into a department store, deciding to stand behind a cash register and the telling them how much you want to be paid. They didn’t get to interview you and decide what you are worthy of. If you haven’t proven yourself in blogging, which I’m sorry takes either some TIME or some thing that really strikes people, is professional looking etc you aren’t going to get paid.

    1. In many ways bloggers are lucky to have the outlets to get their names out in the beginning. It used to be much, much harder to have real “clips” to attach with your query letter. Now you can get up some bylines and start to build a name from the get-go. And in my experience that is what leads to good paid work.

  10. Great points, and I would also add that I’ve written for two different outlets for free, and both agreed to pay me after just a few weeks of doing the free gig. So that, for me, was totally worth it. Again, everyone has to do what’s right (or write, sorry couldn’t help it) for them.

  11. good points R. My thoughts… Blogging for many of us is becoming a second career of sorts. My personal experience with blogging started out as a scrapbook for my daughter and has morphed into a business without much effort from me. I have been making an effort to ‘ up the ante’ if you will, and the brand pitches are coming in! Most brands want me to do stuff for free… or in exchange for swag or review products.

    Would I work for free? I have. I see it as an internship… for myself. I’m investing in MY brand and will be using the bigger brand to help me grow.

    Of course I pick and choose which companies I want to partner with or talk about on my online space and decide whether or not it’s worth doing for free. Like you mentioned…” you have to have a backbone and integrity either way.”

  12. I totally agree, as long is there is no minimum writing commitment, unless you are very new and really need the exposure.

    I have been writing for Technorati Media without pay (expect for the little bit I get from the Google Adsense they let us put on our articles). However, I only write when I want to, I have a platform to write about issues that don’t fit into the theme of my blog and recently I got to go to TEDxWomen to cover it for them. That alone made it all worth it.

  13. Ah! You always say what I hope someone will say. Thank you for having the integrity to admit what we all know we’ve done sometimes, but the clarity of purpose to explain why without offending anyone. I couldn’t agree more with everything you said and I hope every new blogger who is feeling guilty about (gasp) “ruining it for everyone” will read this and feel better about whatever they choose. Quite simply, you rock.

  14. Ultimately, I think that it’s a personal decision. I’m not into grown women making their decisions by popular “permission”. While I do think that it’s important to consider the effect that your decisions have on the larger community, I think that everyone has different goals and shouldn’t be confined to a box.

    At the end of the day, it’s ok for me to work for free when I want to. Period. (For the record, I usually only work for free when I’m entering a new topic area of writing or I’m writing for a cause/community that I truly believe is worth my time.)

    1. Yup. That’s the part of the conversation that makes me crazy – the idea that there is only one way and only cash is valuable. We all know when it feels right and when it doesn’t. I think you have to have a backbone and integrity either way.

  15. Of course – it’s all about getting experience and building credibility when you’re starting out. Totally agree. THEN . . . you must value the work you do and charge for your time, experience, expertise. It’s not always easy but frankly, it’s essential. I don’t have the inclination to take time away from my family and friends otherwise.

    1. I agree. I don’t work at all anymore for free. And one of the things that really shocked me this week was large magazine sites paying NOTHING to a panel of mom bloggers while I know they pay others – including myself. It’s great to be a in a position to only accept paid work but many bloggers need to look at the big picture and think about how to get to that point.

      1. That’s interesting because if you’re talking about what I think you are referencing here, I noticed that and thought, “Wow, she did that for free?”

        It’s one thing to make a decision to work for free, but then finding out other bloggers on the same project or a different branch of the same project got paid? Ouch!

        I’m totally with you on your first point. Were it not for Chicago Moms Blog/The SVMoms group, I’m certain I’d still be blogging almost anonymously from a dark corner of my basement.

        If the spirit moves me, I may contribute to a friend’s site for free now and again, not for brands.

        1. Oh Kim, you totally hit on the topic of my next post – brands. That’s a different thing entirely because bloggers are part of their social media strategy and they should be budgeting for that not considering that free press.
          But just looking at the comments here and on facebook I can’t imagine I’d have any network at all without having had SV Moms give me the intro into this world.

          1. As much as I hated that 2 post a month minimum back then, it was so worth it since SV Moms was my springboard into the blogger community and meeting everyone. I don’t know where I would be today had I not written for them.

            It is very different writing for blog communities for free than it is for brands.

  16. What a great piece. The absolutes of some of the articles I’ve read recently have made me wonder how some of those writers got started. No doubt they worked for free to build relationships and credibility along the way too. And if there’s value–even if it’s not monetary–you’re not really working for free. Thanks for looking at it from your perspective.

    1. Thanks Amy,
      I think it’s very confusing for bloggers starting out now because they’re made to feel so bad about writing anywhere for free. They certainly have to look out for being taken advantage of, but being part of a community can be really valuable!

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