Why (Offering or Accepting) Free Help Isn’t Always the Best Option

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Raise your hand if you’ve personally been in the following situation. A friend, or a family member, or your former boss, or maybe just an acquaintance, hears what you do for a living.

Then they invariably throw it out there, “Hmm, maybe you can help me with [insert service that you usually charge for].”

That’s it! No offer to pay. Zero shame in asking for your help without offering anything in return.

Or maybe you’re the one asking for help. “C’mon, a little website tweak can’t take that long.”

Kristi Porter is here to explain why using free help may backfire, and how to respond when you’re the one being tapped for free work.

Here’s Kristi!

There we were. The deadline was fast approaching. The edits weren’t ready. And our free, volunteer graphic designer was nowhere to be found.

Cue the panic.

Unfortunately, this wasn’t the first time I’d found myself in this position. It all worked out in the end, but it was a bumpy road.

In my niche, I focus on writing and consulting for small nonprofits and social enterprises. These organizations tend to run on a few employees, sheer determination and, quite often, volunteers.

Most of the time, this formula works.

However, when nonprofits and small businesses rely too heavily on volunteers and free assistance, it can lead to trouble.

I’ve been involved with several projects where deadlines were missed and the quality delivered was less than desired because those who seemed godsend in the early stages turned out to be busy, unmotivated, and easily distracted.

Does any of this sound familiar?

Even though we work for ourselves, or want to work for ourselves, that doesn’t always mean we work by ourselves. If your weeks are anything like mine, they’re filled with things you love to do, things you don’t like to do, and things you just aren’t capable of doing. The last one may be due to lack of time or even talent. (Bookkeeping falls in the lack of talent category for me.)

And whether you’re just getting your business off the ground, it hasn’t grown in the way you’d hoped, or it’s grown rather quickly, it can be overwhelming to shoulder the burden of responsibility.

There are to-do lists at every turn, and decisions that need to be made on a daily basis. So, when someone pops by to say, “I can help … for FREE,” it can sound like the perfect answer to your silent prayers.

Hang on!

That may not be your best option, especially long term. I’d urge you to weigh the pros and cons before you cry those tears of joy, and also to develop a good filter for evaluating your would-be saviors.

Otherwise, you may wake up to find that your “yes” has become an “oh, no.”

What’s the Catch with Free Help?

Let me just start with the question you’re probably asking yourself, which is, “Why not?”

Why Free Help Isn't Always the Best OptionIf you are reading this post in a sleep-deprived, caffeine-fueled stupor, I may sound like a crazy person.

Asking you to reconsider or turn down free help for your small freelance business may just be the worst advice you’ve heard all day.

But hear me out.

The catch with free help is that you won’t feel like you can put any real demands, such as deadlines, on this person.

After all—you aren’t paying them anything. They’re assisting because they are a friend, family member, or maybe even interested in the work. It’s likely out of the goodness of their hearts or to build their portfolio.

Neither is a bad reason, but it still doesn’t give you much leverage to get the job done.

Even the portfolio builders may find a “better” opportunity, or may not have the required skills to do the job adequately.

What’s the Solution to Getting Free Help?

Here are a few workarounds to obtaining the help you need, in a manner that lets you retain some control.

  • Pay something, even if the service is offered for free. This will make you feel like you have more say if things get tough. (And sometimes, things do get tough in the life of a project.)
  • Barter or trade so that you’re each receiving something of value.
  • If you don’t have other options at the moment, meaning no extra cash, use free help sparingly and clearly lay out expectations and review periods.
  • When you’re using free help, always start small. Don’t put your entire project in the hands of someone who has nothing to lose if it all goes south.
  • Think long-term. Create a plan and note which items get priority when you do find yourself with some money to invest in additional help.

The Exceptions to the Free Work Rule

I will say that what I’ve outlined here is no absolute, and there are exceptions to every rule.

I’ve worked alongside some stellar individuals who got the job done, and asked for nothing in return. I’ve also been that person.

However, sadly, I’ve heard horror stories of people picking up the pieces when the person offering free help moved on. You can likely relate to one of these scenarios as well.

But I want to look for the best in people, so my advice is to be cautiously optimistic.

Here’s What to Do If Someone Asks You for Free Help

So far, we assumed you’re in the driver’s seat of your small business.

But another question you may be asking yourself is what should you do if you are approached about working for free? This is a question in the mind of most every freelancer.

And the truth is, there’s no one-size-fits-all answer. Sorry!

However, here are a few guidelines that I’ve used for myself:

1. Make it clear that you’re running a business.

Make it clear to everyone that what you’re doing is your business, whether you’re a full-time freelancer or do it as a side hustle.

Use words that indicate you are trying to make money from this endeavor. That should cut down on some of the asks, especially when you are proactive about it, rather than waiting until a request is made.

2. Check your motivation before you say yes.

If someone asks for free help  for something you believe in and want to support, or if you need to build your portfolio, let the person know why you’d like to be involved and give them parameters that you feel comfortable with.

For example, I helped one friend with her event launch by offering guidance, on-site setup, and managing social media during the event. There was a lot more to do, of course, but we were both clear on my role. Later, she even hired me for a project!

3. Counter with the need to be paid.

Can you make a counteroffer that they can’t refuse?

This can be at your full rate or a discount. If the latter, state that it is a one-time discount, but you’d love to work with them. Most people will understand that you need to earn a living.

Is the opportunity too good to pass up? Then just go for it! You never know how they may help you down the line. But these moments are few and far between. Paying the bills is the priority.

4. Turn it down.

At times you may just need to say no, and that’s perfectly fine.

When possible, explain why as nicely as you can. You don’t want to burn bridges, so don’t be snarky or act offended. Who knows, a paid offer may come up in the future. The point here is to protect your time and your business—even from friends or family, when necessary.

In all of these situations, you’ll have to trust your gut, stand your ground, and most importantly, understand your worth. And you do have worth!

Finally, and I’m guilty of this one too, if you’re put on the spot, ask for time to consider it. Rarely do people actually need an immediate answer.

So, if you aren’t sure, tell them you’ll think about it and get back to them.

Hopefully you see now that while free help is always tempting, it may not always be the best option. On the surface, having to pay nothing is a relief for many of us. However, potential “costs” may add up in the form of limitations, unreliability, or shoddy work.

Take a moment to consider all factors before making any decisions, giving special consideration to the long-term aspects of your business. Often, the best outcomes happen when both sides have skin in the game.

Ok, maybe you shouldn’t accept free help. But we’re offering a free list of all the niches you could specialize in as a freelance writer.

Do you have any personal experience, either with accepting free help or being asked to help without compensation? Success story or cautionary tale—let’s hear them!

Kristi Porter is a writer and consultant who helps nonprofits and for-profits with a social mission get noticed and grow through effective copywriting, marketing and communications. She believes that they are the future of business, and when they succeed, we all win. Find her online at www.signify.solutions, or offline at the movie theater.

2 thoughts on “Why (Offering or Accepting) Free Help Isn’t Always the Best Option”

  1. I’ve been in this situation with a long-time acquaintance whom I offered to help launch her website. My suggestion was made during a period of quiet and a willingness to share my resources. I expected nothing in return. But she sat on her hands.

    One year later she took the plunge and hired a professional. Monies were paid upfront before the product was delivered. And due to her inexperience, much was left undone. While we discussed the situation and I offered advice, I didn’t step in. This was a costly mistake (nearly $800) but an important lesson nonetheless.

    Setting boundaries is a necessity whether you’re seeking aid or offering your assistance to someone else. Emotional or spur of the moment agreements will only result in frustration and regret. A little self-honesty goes a long way. There are some arrangements that should not be made.

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