I’m not supposed to work for free. I know that. I’ve been freelancing for five years and know my worth. And yet, a few times each year, one friend or another will ask me for a favor. It could be as simple as proofreading a resume – that puts me on the spot regarding whether I should bring up the matter of payment.
I’m talking about good people, trustworthy people, most of whom I’ve known for decades. I’m talking about ex-roommates who’ve given me a shoulder to cry on when I needed it, a best friend attorney who has given me free legal advice, relatives who’ve housed me and fed me and asked nothing in return. In short, people who have done me favors, too.
Before I respond to a request for a “freelance favor,” I ponder these questions:
+ Is it a first-time request? A first-time request doesn’t get an automatic yes, but requests beyond first or second get either a friendly email that outlines my standard fees or, in some cases, an automatic no (not often, but sometimes, it’s better to simply refuse a favor rather than try to do business with a friend). Take for instance the friend of a friend, “Peg,” for whom I proofread as a favor a couple academic papers and a resume when she was a student. POD publishing became one of Peg’s business endeavors after graduation and at a birthday party last year, she announced to everyone at the table that she was planning to email us all a PDF draft of one of her authors’ books. Great fun to read, she assured us, and it would really be great if we wanted to give her feedback if we had the time. Oh, especially me, since I do that sort of thing anyway. I deleted the file when I received it and nothing more was ever mentioned about it.
+ Are they going to make money as a result of my work? I proofread Peg’s academic papers for free partly because I knew she was a student, broke and in debt. The POD publishing, in addition to being her umpteenth request for a favor and a grossly huge undertaking, was a moneymaking endeavor.
+ How big is the favor? If it’s only a first or second request, the size of the project determines my response. A friend who self-published a book about bird nutrition asked me to copyedit the text. It was a first-time request from her, but the project was too huge for me to do for free. Instead of declining completely, I offered to look over the one chapter about which she had the most editing concerns. Resume proofreading is another request I get at least once a year, which leads me to the next question.
+ Does the favor require my particular expertise or is it something that any friend might do for another? In my mind, proofreading a resume is a classic “favor for a friend” (like giving someone a ride to the airport or helping someone who is moving to a new house).
+ If I’m not getting money, what am I getting? I don’t like to feel that I’m being used in general, so a friend who constantly asks for favors of any kind and doesn’t repay them isn’t really a friend in my book. (I mean, there are limits to how many sofas I’m willing to schlep and the number of stairs I’ll schlep them.) It’s just that “freelance favors” happen to be the most common favor friends ask of me.
The question of freelance favors for friends is a problem you’ll encounter sooner or later if you haven’t already. SET BOUNDARIES in your own head beforehand, so you’ll have a ready answer when you get hit up for a freelance favor. Maybe you’ll limit your favors to proofreading only, or giving only one freebie per friend per year. Maybe you’ll offer a discounted fee or fulfill only part of a request. Or maybe you’ll decide to implement a “zero freelance favors policy,” in which case you can deflect requests for freebies with humor. “What can I say? I’m hard core,” you can tell any friend who grumbles. “I don’t ever freelance for free, but if you need someone to schlep a sofa…”
Dawn Stanton’s freelance career began with an article on teaching English in Taiwan and has included a stint as a science writing intern at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory. Her publications appear in Fermilab Today, Symmetry Magazine, The Oregonian, Pittsburgh City Paper, Pittsburgh Business Times, on ThingsAsian.com, and in local newspapers. Her blog, Here be snipes and silverspots, is stantonwrites.blogspot.com.