“Unfortunately we can’t pay for writers, but this will be a great opportunity to gain exposure.”
Sounds familiar? I received such an email only a couple of weeks ago—after working as a freelance journalist for over a decade. I kindly declined “the opportunity” and reminded the client that I do not work for free as it will not benefit anyone in the industry.
After a hard “no”, they eventually came back to me with a budget. However, that is not often the case. Every time I have reminded myself how valuable my skills and time are, I have felt immediately more confident. In fact, the times I’ve refused to work below my budget or for free have boosted confidence as a professional!
There have been two times in my 10 years of freelance career when I have worked for free. The first time was at the beginning of my career as a journalist. At the time, I was studying design and considered writing as a pastime hobby, not a job per se. The gig, which gave me free access to some of the biggest music festivals in Europe, proved to be a fruitful one. I didn’t only have the best summer of my life but also landed in actual jobs with a writing resume I didn’t have before.
The second time I agreed to work for free was around five years ago. I had gained most of my work experience in the media industry, but I wanted to build networks in the non-profit and charity sector. My desire was to work with feminist clients and organisations whose causes I truly believed in.
As I had no previous experience with nonprofits, I joined as a volunteer for TribesForGood, a social enterprise empowering entrepreneur women in India. My main task was to help the organisation to build their communication and social media strategy. I volunteered, because I was able to give my time and skills and because I was financially compensated with my day job. No one asked me to work for free, I contacted the organisation myself.
Since my first paid job as a writer, I’ve made it clear that I would never write for free, unless I decided it myself. The same principle applies to my arts and performance practice. It blows my mind that as creative practitioners, we still have to fight for our right to be compensated sufficiently for our work and time.
The creative industry is famous for exploiting creative talent. If we decide to work for free, it means lowering the bar for everyone. I’m sure this needs no reminders, but there isn’t a single industry where women are paid the same as men. According to a recent study by digital and creative recruitment specialist Major Players, women earn on average £10,400 less than men in the creative industries.
Even freelance day rates are significantly lower: women make £44 less per day than their male counterparts. For people of indigenous, ethnic minority and Black backgrounds, the gap is even wider. Yet, the creative industry is the fastest-growing sector, contributing to more than £52bn in the UK economy each year.
At a time when we are still fighting for equal pay for equal work, we have to ensure that creative talent—especially women and minority groups—get paid for their work. We simply cannot afford to work for free.
Next time someone approaches you with a free work opportunity in exchange for great exposure, consider these things before saying ”yes.”
Have I got the time?
If you are already busy, it might be best to leave the gig for another time. Prioritise paid work and value your time.
Am I passionate about the cause?
Don’t say yes to something out of obligation. Set limits on how much time you can donate.
Could I get paid for this?
If the answer is yes, and the opportunity doesn’t boost your resume, jumpstart your career or raise money for a cause you love, consider saying no—without guilt. Saying no won’t make you a bad person.
Finally, remember: If someone approaches you, you’ve got something valuable to offer. By defining your boundaries, you create a space for people to value and respect you more. Without mutual respect, the job is unlikely worth your time.
About your author
Sara Kärpänen (she/her) is a London-based writer, multidisciplinary artist (MA) and the founder of queer feminist and anti-racist Women of the Wick consultancy, media and community championing marginalised voices and tackling inequality in the creative industry. Sara’s podcast Girl Get A Real Job is on the mission to normalise money conversations amongst creative practitioners.
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