4 Keys to Working for Free

As entrepreneurs, we’ve all been asked at one point if we will provide our services free of charge. This usually comes at the request of a nonprofit organization or another entrepreneur in the name of “exposure.” They’ll often make promises about establishing key connections and the possibility of future business. So how do you decide when to say no? The first step in working for exposure without being exposed is to set clear boundaries, and here are four keys to doing just that.

1. State your value.

Given the fact that most people value what they pay for, does it mean working for free might put you in an inferior position? Not necessarily. There can be good reasons to say yes to such an opportunity, whether it’s to build your portfolio, increase brand awareness or simply make a positive impact towards a cause you believe in. So you might be wondering: How can you establish and maintain your value while also working for free? The solution lies in creating a systematic process.

My mission is to support women in the launch and growth of their business, and I’m frequently asked to speak on this subject … for free. One of the ways I create boundaries and establish my value is by by putting each request through the same process, regardless of whether it’s a paid offer or pro bono.

You may have heard the saying, “There’s an app for that,” but there also should be a saying, “There’s a form for that.” I actually created such a form to gather details about the event (location, length of talk, number and profile of attendees, etc.) that also outlines speaking fees, clearly stated in black and white. Below these fees is an open field, which allows the applicant to state its case as to why they would like me to waive my fees. Then I can decide to accept or deny the request. Don’t get me wrong; I often do speak for free at universities and for small nonprofit organizations, but at least they know the value of what they’receiving. You’d be surprised how requiring people to fill out a form reduces the number of work-for-free requests you receive.

2. Plan ahead for giving back.

Being a business owner means juggling many responsibilities and decisions. It is estimated that an average person makes 35,000 decisions per day. Decision fatigue is a real thing! When doing your annual strategic planning, include how much of your time and means you want to contribute to the causes you love. Consider giving a percentage of your total work, number of hours per month or number of times per year.

Every year, San Dieg-based marketing company Office of Awesome grants one deserving nonprofit with a free brand architecture, valued at $30,000. They call it the Great Brand Search. Organizations that nominate themselves for the contest must have a viable business model, commitment to provide value to their clients and the ability to execute on a strategy to grow their brand. The company uses panel of experts to help choose the winning organization, which recieves a review of its business model, product line, positioning and marketing. It’s a win-win, because the organization receives significant support and the Office of Awesome has an incredible story to tell future customers.

3. Find an online solution.

When someone asks you to support their organization by giving your time or talent, don’t be afraid to give a little of the legwork back to them. Many coworking spaces receive requests to donate free memberships to support an organization’s silent-auction fundraising efforts. We filter all our inquiries through an amazing platform called DonationMatch.com that not only verifies the organization’s 501c3 status but also creates a printable gift certificate the nonprofit can download instantly.  We don’t have to do a thing!

4. Craft your giving mission.

Most businesses understand the importance of having a mission and vision statement as a guiding force for their company and brand. Have you considered your giving mission, one that tells the world how you give back? Ours is posted on our website’s community page and directs inquiries to this area so organizations can determine if our missions align. This relieves you from being the “bad guy.” You can simply say, “We choose to give to organizations which align with our giving mission.” I also recommend including a link to a form where organizations can apply; again, create a process around it. Finally, we give the nonprofits we choose to support extra exposure by listing them on our site.

While it can feel good to say yes to requests for help, overextending ourselves means there’s less of us to give to our paying clients. By planning ahead, creating streamlined processes and utilizing technology, you will be empowered as a business owner to really make a difference in the causes you believe in.

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