Today's creative freelancer has to run an increasingly complicated gauntlet in order to receive work. You need a top-notch portfolio, a social media presence, and an extensive professional network just to source contacts. The existence of Dribbble and Pinterest make your prospective clients more indecisive than ever. Media convergence means you need to be able to work in a multidisciplinary fashion regardless of your training or educational background.
This all combines to make the appeal of working for free considerably higher than it used to be for many freelancers. It presents the opportunity to get your "foot in the door" and build your rolodex. An indecisive client will typically be happy with whatever output they get when they've paid nothing for it. You can test your skill level when you're working outside of your normal comfort zone, without risk to your client's pocketbook.
Don't do it.
While all of the above may be true, there is a slippery slope to be aware of when working pro-bono. One of the most obvious, yet still overlooked aspect of this practice is the free vs. cheap threshold. When there is literally no expense most people will not think twice to obtain your services. This comes as a double-edged sword; as soon as you start to charge, you present your prospective client with what now constitutes a very high percentage increase from your original price.
When your client compares you to another contractor with similar prices, there is a subconscious valuation that takes place: you've raised your prices for a familiar product, while your competition is charging the same rate for something new. This already provides disincentive to retain your services vs. obtaining someone else's. Further, your competition may well be evaluated as being of fundamentally higher quality, as the work your competitor is offering already comes with a price-tag.
As a creative working for free, you also serve to reduce the perceived value of the kind of work you provide. Once a client has received good quality work for free, it becomes much harder for them to accept the idea of having to pay for more work of the same quality. This then creates a trend of bargain-hunting amongst clients, where the ideal price to pay for anything is zero. The net effect is that you and your competition are forced to lower billing rates across the board. And then this happens.
Crowdsourcing: just say no.
Crowdsourcing is - and should be - a dirty word in many creative communities. As the practice becomes increasingly popular it's important to realize that at the end of the day this is just a fancy term for finding free, willing labour. While many organizations don’t have the resources available to pay for your work, those that do will still try and get it for free in many cases. These are the kinds of companies you need to keep an eye out for, and who tend to use the term crowdsourcing itself as a way to distract from their end goals.
Contests are another related scheme for many companies to obtain reams of creative work for free. If you read the fine print, you'll often notice some very glaring points like: "Acme Co. shall be granted the exclusive right to redistribute, reprint or reuse all submitted material in perpetuity without reimbursement." This kind of practice is more common than you might think, so make sure to read through contest rules carefully before entering.
Ask, and ye shall receive.
We're all becoming increasingly shy when it comes to asking for what we want and deserve. Much of this phenomena is based on the perception of competition; in an ever-more competitive marketplace, many feel that asking for less will be a faster path to receiving work. This practice can initiate a downward spiral which is best avoided. Lowering your own expectations will decrease your confidence and self-worth, not to mention your quality of life.
To see the clear benefits of asking for what you want, we can look to the following anecdote. Having received an interview for a high-end position, a job applicant walked in with confidence, and when asked for his salary expectations asked for exactly what he wanted and then some. The applicant walked out of the interview with a six-figure salary and benefits aplenty. While this won't always work, the moral of the story is that as the expression goes "you miss 100% of the shots you don't take." If you choose to work for free, you may well be turning down money that was budgeted just for a new hire. That limo in the parking lot? It had your name on the plates.
When free is fair.
While it's bad form to work for free when there could be money on the table, there are situations where it's a reasonable practice. Chief amongst these is charity; many not-for-profit organizations really don't have the funds available to pay you, and contrary to for-profit businesses, would really love to if they could. If you're looking to expand your portfolio or professional network, consider these organizations first. You'll be giving back to the community, and you'll find that the kind of response you'll get to your work will be filled with earnest praise.
You can reference the work you've done for charitable organizations when applying for other work, and quote the pricing you would have charged them. This may seem a little unscrupulous at first, but in reality you're adding value to both yourself and the organization. If you think the work you do is worth compensation, but this organization was unable to pay you and you still did it, there must be something of merit about that organization that led you to do that kind of quality work for free.
If you're going to work for free, make free work for you.