When You Should Work for Free (And When You Shouldn’t)

When You Should Work for Free (And When You Shouldn’t)

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As incoming and current Masters students we are presented with a variety of opportunities, some of them paid, some of them not. Occasionally sifting through those opportunities can be trying, and figuring out when it makes sense to work for free can be tough. Working for free has a bad sound to it, it sounds illegal, it sounds like somebody made a mistake, but sometimes it makes sense to work for free: an above board internship that serves a true educational purpose, you want to donate your time to a worthy cause, or you feel compelled to create a business from scratch. I’m going to break down all three of these instances and point out when it makes sense for you to keep working for free, and when you should draw the line and start getting paid.

An Internship

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Internships can be great, you can learn a lot, and it can give you a chance to put your artistic or business experience to use. In some instances it can lead to a lucrative position at a major company, particularly if the business is a start-up. Getting in on the ground floor of a soon to be thriving business can often be a savvy move. Or perhaps there is an industry that you always wanted to step into but never had the chance to explore. If you have the leeway to jump into an internship in a new industry, that’s great, another good reason to work for free or very little pay.

However internships have to meet certain criteria to be considered appropriate by U.S. labor laws, this is for the protection of those receiving the internship, for their educational benefit and ultimately for the legal and financial safety of all concerned. If there’s not mutual consideration in the internship contract, it’s probably not going to be a beneficial situation, and you should either ask for a paid position or move on to greener pastures.

Every now and then, an internship blossoms into something lucrative and you are offered a position with the company. Unless you have a better offer, take it, it’s always great to be paid in an industry that you have spent time and effort getting to know and have a lasting personal interest in. You’ve just won the internship game.

A Worthy Cause

Sometimes there is a non-profit or cause based company that is doing work that aligns with your values and skill set. You might be able to provide them with some great insight or fill necessary gaps in their consulting or administrative needs. Perhaps you’ve been asked to be a board member in an unpaid capacity, strongly consider these opportunities. While in some circumstances they might not be paid, they are a great opportunity to give back to your community, look great on your resume, and in some cases might provide you with a tax break through an in-kind donation of your time.

But… your desire to do good can sometimes outpace your financial needs. And this is when you should look carefully at the type of work you’re doing for free, and how much work you’re doing for free. Is your donated time eating away at your ability to earn an income or create the art that you most want to create? Have you dedicated yourself to an intense work load that is emotionally and physically draining? At this point it’s important to carefully consider your priorities and determine if you truly can continue to work for free. The conversation ought to be very transparent, just point out that you believe in the organization’s mission, you are putting in an incredible amount of effort, and if your position warrants it, it’s time to be paid for your hard work. You’ll still be dedicated to a worthwhile mission, but you’ll be putting some extra money in the bank while you’re at it.

Starting a New Business

Businesses often operate at a loss for the first bit of existence, especially small-home businesses. This one is pretty easy, whether you’re helping a friend or starting the work yourself, allow the business to not pay you for a time, and determine beforehand exactly what that time frame is. This is more familiar to those in the theatre and arts community than other types of endeavors, but the basic principle is the same. Do your accounting, calculate when the business should be turning a profit (or building an endowment), and if you’re not being paid for the time that you’re putting into the venture, shut your doors. There’s no point going hungry or being forced to file bankruptcy over something that simply is not going to be successful.

If business is booming, again simple, work with your accountant (or if you’ve really grown, accounting department) to pay everyone, and yourself accordingly. You’ve put a lot of hard work into creating something from nothing, working for free at this point would be silly, unless you are independently or miraculously wealthy and work for fun, in which case you’re probably not reading this blog.