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How to Avoid Pro-Bono Traps (Working for Free) as a Freelancer

If you've been freelancing for a while, or you're just getting into freelancing, you've probably had "offers" for you to do pro-bono work - or in other words, work for free

New freelancers often fall into this trap because they're looking for portfolio work or they simply don't have the confidence to charge money for their services. If this is you, I caution you about going down this path! You're not only setting a precedent for these clients to not pay you (ever), but you're also creating a money block and a resistance to making money

The Pro-Bono Traps

Here are some of the traps that I've encountered along the way that you'll most definitely want to avoid:

1. The promise of financial gain later

Here's the thing - business is sometimes a risk, and some people will try and drag you into a risky situation to reduce the blow for themselves. You may be asked to provide your services for free with the promise that you'll either a) be paid at a later date in full or b) be provided a commission if your services are "successful". Don't fall for it, because it rarely pans out. I've had potential clients protest, suggesting that I didn't have confidence in my work. I've simply told them that there are too many contributing factors that will determine the success of the project beyond my own contribution. The truth is, they're not confident in their business or your services if they're proposing such an arrangement.

2. The promise of referrals

You know this one; "if you do a good job for me, I'll refer you to my friends!" Yeah, right. If a client doesn't have the money to pay you, they'll most likely surround themselves with the same kind of people. Or, more likely, they'll tell their friends what they roped you into and they'll want the same deal. Skip the potential for referrals. It rarely pans out. 

3. The desperate client *cue violin music*

I've heard all the sappy stories and excuses along the way as to why they can't pay for my services. Sick parents, trust issues with other freelancers, their dog ate their credit card, you name it. I once had a client who continuously told me she couldn't pay her bill, but then she posted her new hot convertible on social media. The thing is, if someone really wants something, they'll always find the money. You are an investment, just like anything else that's important in their lives. If they don't see it that way, they're either disrespectful of your talent or just plain cheap. 

How to Avoid the Pro-Bono Traps

Value Your Worth

Avoidance of pro-bono traps starts with you. Knowing your value and worth will be projected out into the world. If you have the intention of only working with clients who value you and your services, only those clients will come your way. Don't sway or negotiate to accommodate a cheap client - it will only signal to the Universe that you want more of that kind of energy in your life. 

Explain you're not in a position to offer pro-bono work

Hey, we're running a business, not a charity, just like them (unless it is a charity!). Explain in a cool and collected way that you just don't have the time and/or resources to offer work up for free, but you would be happy to work with them when they have the funds. Sometimes, they just need a bit of time. 

However, I would often tell difficult leads that I have a line-up of paying clients waiting at my door, and if they wanted in, they needed to put down the cash. When they realize they might miss out on your talent, they may make with the cash quick!

Don't offer pro-bono to people who talk

As mentioned above, people like to talk, especially when they know they've received a good deal. News spreads fast and it could lead back to a paying or potential client. Save yourself the grief and don't offer it to people who talk or are connected. 

Let them know that services need to be paid upfront

If someone plays the pro-bono card with you, the likelihood of them skipping out on their bill later is probably very high. Be sure to get paid upfront for your services whenever possible. If they cause a fuss, you know it wasn't meant to be. 

When Pro-Bono Work is Ok

You have to make up your own mind whether you would like to undertake pro-bono work in your business. I knew that in the early days, I just didn't have the time or resources to work for nothing. As my business became more established, I decided to dedicate myself to two projects per year, pro-bono, that I really loved.

If you do decide to take on pro-bono work that you love, be sure to set milestones and key performance indicators to ensure that the client is keeping up their end of the bargain. If they're slacking, your work may be all for nothing. Be sure to check in with them regularly to keep them accountable and not wasting your time and goodwill. 

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