The last few months, I’ve found myself at a somewhat awkward, but growing stage of my career. I just finished graduate school and am transitioning into a new role, one that does not include my previous occupation — broadcast journalist. As a result, I’ve been working for free: I’ve been interning and volunteering, in hopes of building a portfolio, making connections, and gaining exposure. I’ve also learned about this new world of trading services, in which two people agree to help each other by exchanging their talents.
While this is a great way to get started, I am learning that you have to be careful. Working for free or trade can work really well for you, or it can quickly become a disaster, one in which you or another person feels taken advantage of.
Here’s 4 guidelines to follow when working for free or trade:
- Treat your client as you would a paying client. If you’re really looking to build a portfolio or contacts, take the gig seriously. Don’t just do the basics and don’t flake on deadlines. Remember that this person can refer you to your next paying client, and if you come off as irresponsible, they’ll be far less likely to promote you or your work in the future. Plus, you want what you put in your portfolio to be your best work!
- Assess the time you can give. Especially if you have another job, you have to be aware of how much of your free time you’re willing to give. Really look at your schedule and come up with a number of hours you can give, then estimate how many hours the project will take. If it ends up taking more time than you predicted, be honest and let the client know you will get the product out as soon as you can — or let them know you cannot take on the project at this time.
- Clearly define your exchange. If you’re trading services, make sure that that trade is clearly defined. A project will take you X number of hours and cost approximately X amount. Is the service you’re getting in exchange worth about the same? Talk about this BEFORE the work begins, and if something seems imbalanced to you, be honest about it. If you aren’t clear in the beginning, you’ll end up frustrated further down the line when you feel like you’re putting in far more work than you bargained for.
- Stop a toxic cycle as soon as you spot it. Think you’re getting taken advantage of, and even when you try to address the issue, it goes unresolved? Stop. You’re not under contract, so you can stop at any point if you feel it’s not working. Remember that a nonpaying client shouldn’t control your schedule. You are going out of your way to do something at no cost to them, and they should know that your paying job or gigs come first. Of course, you should meet the deadlines you set with the client, but do not panic and scramble to meet unexpected, last-minute requests. If you don’t look out for your best interests, no one else well.
Bottom line: Make sure you’re getting something out of project, even if it isn’t money. Maybe it’s a better portfolio, more client referrals, or more exposure. People will take advantage if you let them, so know you’re worth.
Have any of you Career Girls had struggles working for free or trade? I’d love to know what lessons you learned. Share them with us, so we can all learn!