When is working for free a good idea?

I can probably sum this up quite quickly. It’s all about intention. If you are deciding to work for free for a good reason, it’s fine, but if you are doing it because you doubt the worth of what you do or because you feel guilty, it’s not.

Simple, right? No, not really, because it’s often a complex soup of different emotions and motivations.

Let’s try and clarify some of those.

‘Shoulds’ in ELT

Firstly, as I’m sure you’re aware, there is a huge culture of ‘shoulds’ within ELT. You should be more focused on helping other people than on doing what’s good for you. You shouldn’t expect to earn much. You should expect to work really really hard to make ends meet. The messages are all around us in things like, ‘teachers don’t teach for the income, they teach for the outcome’.

And it’s not unusual for people to come right out and say it to you. Like the guy on LinkedIn (who I didn’t know from Adam by the way) who asked me to proof read his MA dissertation for nothing and then got really unpleasant and aggressive when I said no. It’s gobsmacking.

And then there’ are the ‘exposure’ people… this will be great for your CV, this will be great experience for you. As is often said, you can die of exposure!

So, there are going to be pressures to work for free, and I think we have to be aware of those and how they may trigger our guilt or our fear or our lack of self worth, and put some boundaries in place to help us hold the line.

Setting boundaries

One thing that I find really helps is to express my refusal in terms of a more abstract ‘policy’. E.g. I’m sorry, I don’t…. or I have a policy not to… This way it isn’t personal, it’s just how things are.

Denise Duffield Thomas. the money mindset guru, talks about how in her early days she invented an imaginary PA called Dave or Des or something, who would refuse things on her behalf (note that it was a man)

So, when might working for free actually be a good idea? Because sometimes it is.

Marketing and growing your audience

You could argue that any work you do to grow your audience and market your business is working for free. In fact, I don’t see it that way, because it isn’t something I do on top of my business, it’s a core part of it, but it does depend how you look at it.

And it IS important to make sure that any time we spend marketing is intentional and thought through. You obviously can’t guarantee a direct traceable result to anything you do most of the time. Often the results come much later down the line when someone has been following you for quite a while- but over time you will start to get a sense of what does and doesn’t have an impact.

If you already know that your ideal client is not going to be attending a particular conference, then it’s probably not a good investment of your time to do a talk there for free. (Unless you’re very new to giving talks and want the practice of course)

Working for free to gain experience

Getting experience can absolutely be a valid reason to work for free. When I did my coaching diploma I had to do a number of hours of coaching to get the qualification, and I wasn’t paid for them, and that was absolutely fine. But you do have to know when to stop, when you have enough experience and should start charging. And it isn’t when you are perfect…you are allowed to keep learning on the job. And you will probably never be perfect, and that’s fine too.

You may also want to do some work for free to get something started. You might offer a free session in exchange for a testimonial? Or a free call where you offer some help so people can ‘try before they buy’ ? I also think this is fine but with the caveat that it should be very limited. You can definitely fall into a trap of doing too much of this kind of thing which then devalues what you want to sell. Try and work out exactly what is OK to offer for free and what is not and stick to it. And do not feel bad about telling them about your paid offer and spelling out how you could help them further. That’s part of the deal.

Working for free because it’s a good cause?

Most people in ELT have a strong drive to help people, and this is something we have the skills to do. So why not? But here are two key things to consider:

Firstly, balance. If you are doing too much for free, so you can’t ever actually work on your paid business properly- and I see this happening quite often- then the balance is wrong. Ideally you want to get your paid business up and running well first, and THEN you can afford to give away some of your time because you’re being paid well for the hours you do work.

Secondly, how does it make you feel? If it truly makes you feel good inside, then it’s probably aligned and something that will be a win/win. But if deep down you feel resentful, maybe because you were pushed into it, or felt you ought to do it otherwise you’re a bad person, then it’s not aligned. And, actually I don’t think you’ll be doing that much good either. Think about it, would you want someone to help you who resented it deep down?

What are your thoughts about working for free? What strategies do you have to help you decide what’s OK and what isn’t?

This blog post started life as one of my weekly lives in my membership, The Confident ELT Freelancer Collective.


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