We all know that volunteering is a wonderful way to give back to the community and help others out. However, as freelancers, we also know that it’s important that we be paid for our work. There are organizations out there that have no problem profiting off the work of others without properly compensating them.
So, with that in mind, here are some signs that you are working for free (and not volunteering). Please note, this list is not necessarily exhaustive. There are probably many other signs that you’re working for free. Go ahead and add some of your own.
1) The organization has profits. Lots of profits.
Any organization that you volunteer for should not have profits. If it makes a profit, you’re probably working for free. Organizations that need volunteers generally receive money from fundraising, grants or donations. If the organization you’re with makes a profit or has a goal of making a profit, you should be paid for your time. Otherwise, they’re just using you to maximize their dollars.
2) The company isn’t registered as a charity or non-profit.
Even small businesses hope to turn a profit. Being a small business doesn’t make a company a charity and it doesn’t give them the right to expect you to work for free. If it’s a business, you should be charging for your time. After all, they’d charge their clients, wouldn’t they? You need to make a living—and working for free won’t help you do that.
Even if the organization is registered as a charity or non-profit, you are still within your rights to charge them for your work, depending on the circumstances. If they come to you as a potential client asking for work to be done, you are under no obligation to work for free. After all, they likely have a budget for the work to be done, and that budget should include paying you.
3) The organization will profit off your work.
Don’t buy the line that you should work for free because it’s good exposure for you. Don’t convince yourself that a company should be allowed to reprint your articles for free because you were already paid for the work once. Don’t agree to waive fees because the company is small and can’t afford to pay you. If the company plans to profit off your work in some way, then you should profit off your work, too.
4) Volunteering takes up a lot of your time.
Really and truly, volunteering shouldn’t take up the majority of your time. There’s no hard-and-fast rule about time spent volunteering, but much more than a few hours a week—average, of course—and you’re probably working for free. Your volunteer work should not be all consuming. Nor should it take up so much of your time that you’re left without any time for yourself. If you’re working your fingers to the bone week after week, you’re probably working for free.
5) You turn down paid work because of your volunteering.
Your volunteer work should not interfere with your ability to do paid jobs. The only reason it might is if you are already so busy with other paid work and you just love the volunteering so much that you don’t want to lose for more paid work. But, really, how many of us are actually at that point?
6) Your volunteering feels a lot like work, and not in a good way.
There’s no law that says you have to love your volunteering, but it definitely helps if you either love it or have a connection to it. If you spend your waking time dreading your next volunteer session (or putting off the tasks you’re meant to be doing for your volunteering) then it may be time to move on. If you really don’t like the people you volunteer with, it may be time to move on. If you just don’t have any joy from it, it may be time to move on.
Remember, many non-profits and charities have budgets for paid positions or for contracts. If they approach you as a potential client, you’re within your rights to charge them for your services. Some writers have a special, non-profit rate, others don’t. Whether or not you do is entirely up to you.
But, whatever you do, don’t let yourself get talked into working for free. You deserve to be paid for the work you do.
Volunteering is an excellent way to use your skills to give back to the community. But, by the same token, good organizations value the people who volunteer with them.
When I became a freelance writer, I started volunteering with an excellent organization called Access Justice, which helps low-income people obtain legal advice for free. At first, I wrote articles for their newsletter, which took approximately 10 hours every three months.
When they asked me to become editor/designer of the newsletter, they offered to pay me, which I happily accepted.
It’s nice to be appreciated. It helps to make me a happy freelancer.
And, if you’re looking for a book about Volunteer Boards, check out “Before You Say Yes…A Guide to the Pleasures and Pitfalls of Volunteer Boards,” by Doreen Pendgracs. It’s on the McNally Robinson Bestseller Nonfiction list.