How to Ask a Freelancer to Work For Free

Dear Person With a Great Idea/Product/Opportunity and Little and/or No Money,

Welcome to the blog! I understand that you’re in search of some high quality work  from a freelancer but don’t have a lot of cash on hand.

You may have found this site by Googling “Getting freelancers to work for free” or someone you’ve approached for work may have sent you to this post in reply or it’s 2am and you’re on Tumblr. No matter which it is, I’m glad you’re here!

I’m going to tell you the secret of how to ask a freelancer to do high quality work for you for free.

Answer: You don’t.

How to Ask a Freelancer to Work For Free

By Keith Bloomfield via

Unless you’ve birthed the freelancer or given them a kidney recently, you shouldn’t ever ask someone to work for you for free. It’s rude and if someone did it to you, you’d likely be ticked off.

BUT! Asking someone to work for free and asking someone to work for less money than they’d normally make are not the same thing.

I want to point out now that collaboration — where both people are contributing to a work and sharing in the proceeds of that work  — is different from asking for work for free. Collaborators lend one another their skills and labor and both are better for it. At the same time, “hey stranger, draw my partially written graphic novel (with a twist) and I’ll own all the rights” is not collaboration.

Free ≠ No Money, Free = No Value

Asking someone to work for free means that you don’t give them anything  of value for the work they give you.

Luckily, there are many, many things in this world that are valuable that aren’t money. And I’m not talking jewels and fur coats. For instance, that piece of work you want? It’s valuable.

The biggest mistake people make when they ask for work when they don’t have a lot of cash is that they don’t take the time to figure out what valuable things they can offer.

Now a lot of people will sit down and come up with a list of things they think sound valuable  – I’ll put your name on my website! I’ll refer you to my friends! – but the problem with this approach is that it only gives you a list of things that sound valuable to you. It won’t tell you anything about what the freelancer will find valuable.

So how do you go about figuring that out?

Do some research.

Thanks to the magic of the internet, you can eavesdrop on conversations about what freelancers and artists don’t like when people ask them to work for free.

I’d encourage you to seek out and read this stuff. When you do, ask yourself, “Based on what I see these people saying they don’t like, are there any clues about what they do like?”

Chances are, there’s gold in them there Twitter-wars.

For instance, professionals don’t like it when they’re told they would have been paid but the irresponsible person trying to hire them has spent that money on booze and cigarettes.

Yes: ha, ha.

So what might a freelancer in this situation actually like?

Respect. Respect that their talent is worth more than either (1) booze and cigarettes or (2) a bad joke.

Research can also help give you an idea of how much the work you need usually costs. If you can figure out what the actual cost might be you can do all sorts of things:

  • Offer to pay for a portion of the work and figure out a comparable trade for the rest

  • Figure out what you have to offer that is comparable

  • Determine how much you’ll have to have in the bank before you can hire a freelancer

  • Come up with a royalty structure that properly compensates the freelancer for his or her work

In an effort to help with your research I’m starting a spreadsheet of how much professionals charge for various types of work. Because we’re all on the internet here, I’m not going to break it up by region, but it is broken up by years of experience and a high and low range for  per hour, per piece and per project. I’m inviting freelancers everywhere to contribute to this spreadsheet.

Freelancers: Help people know how much your services cost in dollars! That will help them know how to offer things of good value when they don’t have dollars! Please do this! Don’t worry about being perfect! Worry about doing it.

By Tricia G. via

By Tricia G. via

Talk to People.

In addition to any research you might do on the internet, talk to people who do what you are looking for. Gather information about what goes into making what you want made.

A lot of times we ask for work from others without having a good understanding of all the, well, work, that goes into it. If you have a better understanding of the effort and skill that goes into the work, you might be able to come up with ways of making it easier (and therefore more valuable) to work with you.

For instance, if you want revisions, are you OK with the freelancer deciding when those revisions will happen? Can you be more flexible with deadlines? If you have some cash can you time your payments so that the freelancer is getting cash when they’re most likely to need it?

Share More Than Might Feel Comfortable.

Let’s face it, if you need high quality work and you can’t pay for it, or can’t pay the going rate for it, you’ll need to explain why.

That doesn’t mean you have to provide bank statements or explain how the credit card in college turned into a debt machine, but you will have to share more information than you’re probably used to.

If you are making A Thing and the freelancer’s work is one portion of The Thing, explain how much everything else is costing and what you’re doing so they aren’t the only contributor missing out on a pay check. If you haven’t cut corners or made tough decisions anywhere else, don’t expect the freelancer to pick up your slack.

How to Ask a Freelancer to Work For Free

By John Parres via

If what you’re offering isn’t what you’d like to be offering, be honest about that. Let them know that you know that your offer doesn’t meet the going rate and then tell them why you’re having to ask for it anyway.

Share with them any ideas you have for how you might spread the wealth if things go well and how you’ll handle things if they don’t.

By being up front about why you’re having to ask for the work at a reduced rate, you’re being honest and vulnerable, both good qualities to look for when deciding whether to trust someone. Share as much information about the project and your plans as possible, then go a few steps further.

Avoid These Things.

There are certain themes in asking for free work that should be avoided at all costs. Here’s a short list:

– Don’t offer the freelancer exposure for their work.

The internet exists, no one is looking for generic exposure any longer. However, they might be looking for exposure that is statistically likely to lead to paying work. If you can show that people who work for you for free are more likely to get well paying jobs after they work for you, that’s valuable exposure and you should share those stats with the freelancer. But generic “XXX,XXX people read the website every X hours” doesn’t mean anything if those eyeballs don’t turn into paying gigs.

– Don’t offer hi-larious reasons for why you can’t pay the freelancer. 

Not being paid for work isn’t funny, it’s demoralizing. If you treat it as funny you’re telling the freelancer you don’t respect them or their work. Which is not how you want to start off the relationship. You can use humor in your pitch! Just don’t use it to explain why you can’t pay them.

– Don’t assume the freelancer is hard up for work and therefore thankful for this opportunity.

The freelancer might very well be hard up for work, but rarely when someone is hungry are they looking for a way to not eat.

– Don’t assume your 14 year-old neighbor/cousin/kid could do what you’re asking for.

For whatever reason, this is a common theme in posts asking for free work. Which always makes me wonder: if your 14 year-old neighbor kid can do the work, why are you asking strangers to do it instead?

How to Ask a Freelancer to Work For Free

By id-iom via

By working hard to find things of value you can trade for a freelancer’s work, you are more likely to get the work you need, and at a higher quality than free can buy. It can feel intimidating to have to do the research and share details about your project, but it is energy well spent.

And if you don’t think you can handle doing all that work to figure out what value you can offer someone to work for you, you could always your fall back option: pay them.

Categories: Dealing with People

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