Giving Away Your Work and Benefitting

Note: Thanks to all of your thoughtful comments about the poetry class. I’m mulling over your suggestions and will let you know about the class as soon as the details are done. And the winner of the T-shirt will be chosen on Friday. Thanks for the thoughtful comments.

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If you are a freelance writer, artist or have a talent, offer a service or product, you will be asked to give it away for free. Often it comes with the promise of “getting your name out—good marketing.” I’ve talked about avoiding false marketing schemes, but today the issue is different.

Donating your work for free can be a gift to you. . .

Donating your work for free can be a gift to you. . .

A good way to get your services, company’s name or your own name in front of people is to donate your product or services in a way that it will get seen by your target audience. The key is, as always, the right audience. Let’s assume you are fielding requests from several good organizations, all with your target audience.

The request involves both your time and materials, which have a value. They also require time and effort, which has a financial worth–part of the price. (Price and value are two completely different things.)

. . .or you can feel like a garbage truck is sitting on your chest.

. . .or you can feel like a garbage truck is sitting on your chest.

How much should you give away? How much free time is too much to give away? Don’t get angry at people for asking you. It’s a sign they think you will generate traffic for them, so it is flattering. Be smart when you make donating time, services and product part of your marketing budget. (You don’t have a marketing budget, do you? OK, I know. But this will still work for you.)

1. Treat the request as a real job. Never give away something sloppy because you aren’t charging for it. If you are contributing, it represents you, so it has to be your best. Many requests will try to make the request look smaller by saying “just send anything.” Don’t do that. What you send represents you to your potential audience. Send your best.

2. Limit your time and costs. Not by being fast or sloppy, but through smart time management. Instead of starting from scratch, re-write a good article for this specific audience. Make new art, but not with a new technique. Create something you already know how to make, but in a new color.

3. Know when to say ‘no.’ Ask about the deadline before you agree. Most requests for “free” also come with tight deadlines. Don’t be afraid to turn down a request if the deadline doesn’t work for you. Know your limit for “free.” A good rule of thumb is between 5 percent and 10 percent of your non-committed time in any quarter. That figure includes all charitable work–from volunteering to producing. And count in all of your production–planning, buying materials, production.  (Check with your tax person about how much of these donations are tax deductible. It’s much less than you think–your time isn’t tax deductible in most cases.)

4. Plan out the project. Let’s say you offer to write an 800 word article. Use your calendar to block out the time for research, writing, re-writing, proofreading, as if it were a real assignment. The entire block of time is now not available for any other charity work. Putting it in your calendar is a handy reminder to do the work, but also a good reminder that you can’t do any more volunteer work at the same time.

5. Understand your motivation and stick to it. Most of us get in trouble because we want to be nice, friendly, helpful and loved. So we don’t say ‘no.’ We say ‘yes,’ become resentful, rushed, and do a bad job. And inadvertently become not-nice, cranky, a problem and hated. The opposite of what we wanted in the first place. You cannot accept work to be loved if you don’t have time to be loved.

6. Know how to say ‘no.’ Saying ‘no’ doesn’t have to be a rejection of the person who asked.  Here are some ways to say no that are both clear and kind–and that’s the real key to turning down an offer. Be clear and kind.

Say ‘no’ to now, but offer a time that’s realistic for you. “Thank you for asking for an article, Mary, I’m honored you want me to be a guest blogger. I’m booked up for the next two weeks, so tomorrow doesn’t work for me. I could get you something in three weeks from Thursday. Would that work for you?”

–Say ‘no’ because you have booked up all your volunteer time. This shows you are already loved and booked. “Thanks for asking, Mary, but Carlos asked me last week, so my volunteer time for March is already booked. I’m honored you asked.” Delivered with a smile, this feels good and is clear.

Point to another source. This will make you a valuable resource and not cost you future work. “Thanks for the offer, Mary, normally I’d jump at the chance. I’m booked right now, but you might want to ask Haji. He’d be great for your project.”

Free work, handled like real work, can be a good marketing idea. Or it can be the project from hell. Either way, it’s yours to accept or turn down. Don’t create your own hell, I learned that lesson the very publicly embarrassing way.

–Quinn McDonald is a creativity coach who has to say No to things she would love to do. Choosing is always going to be hard.

Images: Giftbox from, garbage truck from


10 thoughts on “Giving Away Your Work and Benefitting

  1. Even back when I was an independent contractor, I was never asked to do any sort of “free project”. This was possibly because to have any use for what I could do you pretty much had to be a software development company.

    I’m not sure what I would have answered if I’d been asked. Nevertheless, what I’ve always done for free is to answer technical questions on user forums and the like, from “how to incorporate interactive help in your new software application” to my current project, “how to build a laptop computer for $100 that you can use for a week on 4 AA batteries”. (BTW the computer works, but whether I can make it look more like a laptop than a bag of components remains to be seen.)

    • The request for “free stuff” is the world of writers and artists, often for charity auctions. I also get asked to do free press releases, PR, marketing writing and coaching. I’d love to see your bag o’ computer.

  2. These are great suggestions for donating time/work and for every day life events. So many times, we overbook ourselves with plans, parties, outings, etc. and leave no down time for ourselves. I did that a lot in my 20’s, started learning how to say NO in my 30’s and backed way off, and have become a pro at NO in my 40’s (wow, I think that will be my new motto: Become a pro at NO). Now I rarely do anything that I don’t REALLY want to do. There are exceptions, of course, with certain family obligations, etc., but I have finally learned to put my needs first. Sometimes I just need to relax and take a bath…for my mental and physical well-being.

    • It’s hard to say No when you are a people-pleaser, and I’m guilty of that. But like you, I have gotten better at saying no, although I am no No Pro. (Love that phrase!)

  3. This is very useful and practical information, Quinn. People should pay careful attention to these suggestions.

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