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Why I Don't Do Work for Free

There have been times in my life when it made sense to do really valuable work for free. Once, when I wanted to add some writing to my portfolio – specifically experience writing a white paper for an organization in the agriculture/social entrepreneurship space – I volunteered to research and write a white paper. The project actually fell apart, but I learned valuable lessons, and later in my career when I needed to write a white paper as the culminating piece for my sunsetting organization, I knew exactly how to execute. I’ve also volunteered as a mentor for business plan and venture competitions in an effort to gain more familiarity with that space. I’ve taken unpaid “internships” to gain knowledge and experience around specific industries.

So, when I first started investigating what it would take to really launch a coaching business, a lot of people told me I should start out and build my experience by doing the work for free, “Work with friends and family, as your first ‘clients’,” they said, “and test it out.” It made sense to me at the time. “Coach everyone you can for free, at first,” they said, “so you can get results without so much pressure on the delivery.”

Well, that may work for specific activities, like testing a worksheet, gauging someone’s reaction to the curriculum of a program, or practicing a particular tool, but general ongoing coaching for free, I discovered, is a massive failure. The “client” doesn’t take the work seriously enough to put in 100% – they tend to cancel appointments, show up late, not do the assignments, etc. And so the “results” never appear as such. As the service provider, one might also fall prey to the idea that since you’re doing it for free, with people you already know, the pressure is off, so maybe you don’t take yourself seriously in the role. Either way, you don’t get the results you were after, and you’re no closer to being better prepared to work with a real client. Worse, you may end up feeling resentful about how your friend or family member is treating your practice, then you end up needing coaching yourself (or maybe therapy)! But that’s another topic for another day. Back to business …

I know this scenario from the client’s point of view, as well, because I was offered coaching for free once (and not with someone I knew previously.) What a wonderful gift from the universe! And while I did take it seriously for several months, toward the end, I could feel that the energy between my coach and myself just wasn’t healthy. I felt a very subtle resentment on both sides. He didn’t really have the time to be doing it, and while I was still extremely grateful to have any of his time at all, I didn’t feel like I was getting the best support. Soon thereafter, I hired a coach that I thought I couldn’t afford. But it was extremely important to me to have the right fit and wow, did it pay dividends! Because it was a stretch for me to be able to afford it, I put a higher value on her service than on anything else going on in my life at the time. When she made a suggestion, I did it! I was going to make sure that if I was spending so much hard-earned money, I would make it worth every penny!

Now, this is not to say that you should never do free. I try not operate in absolutes like that. There are certainly some circumstances in which free is appropriate and can work extremely well. For instance:

1. You are just trying to get a foot in the door

I once offered my consulting services as a volunteer (as opposed to an intern because legally it’s required that interns be compensated either with a stipend or education credits) because I wanted to build my consulting and facilitation experience in the agricultural industry. It didn’t lead to a job directly, but I built up my knowledge of the sector and widened my network substantially, and when an opportunity came up for me to help manage an organization in the marine fisheries sector, I found that much of the experience I’d gained was directly transferable.

2. You are doing something so personal that your customer/client is unlikely to buy without trying first – like one-on-one coaching

I offer a free 30-minute intro session that allows people to get a taste for what I do. It’s long enough to help them shift their energy and get some real results from that single session, but short enough to (most often) leave them wanting more!

The key here is to set clear expectations of what the customer is getting upfront and keep it limited to a set amount of time, and then use some self-discipline to keep yourself from going overboard.

3. You are doing volunteer work for charity

Giving your time and energy to a worthy cause should be energizing and make you feel good. When the intent from the get-go is to give something of yourself for the greater good, there is no expectation of receiving anything in return – this is free at it’s best!

I’m lucky to have found work that I would want to do for free! If I could afford it, I would coach people for free all day long. It’s that fulfilling!

But overall, giving your coaching or consulting, or any other service away for free with the expectation that eventually your non-paying client will want to pay you for it, or that it will lead to more work with others, is a dangerous bet. Instead, it may be training them to see your work as worth less than it is. It creates an expectation … and that’s hard to shake! In addition, giving away free advice saps the creative energy that I could be using to help my paying clients! Imagine how they might feel if they knew they were getting a lower quality of service because I’d been using up the majority of my energy on freebies.

People ask me for free advice all the time. Because I’m a natural coach, and a life-long people-pleaser, it’s hard to say no. So, I’ve had to draw a distinction between when I’m helping someone because I’m their friend and when I’m helping someone because I’m their coach. And, if I’m their coach, consultant or advisor, then we need to have some kind of monetary exchange so that we both take the work seriously!

Next time, we’ll discuss discounts. Mmmmm … can’t wait!


Now I’d like to hear from you … have you done work for free in the past that you’ve regretted? Has it helped you gain new business? (There’s always an exception to the rule!) Please share your experiences …