Speaking for Free Costs Money

I’ve been wrestling with a problem that many entrepreneurs and business owners face: the idea of “working” for free.

My wife, Toni, is a jazz singer who is asked to sing at no charge around the state. My photographer friend, Paul D’Andrea, is often asked to take a couple quick pictures as a favor, because “it’s so easy for him.” Other writer friends are asked to knock out a quick article on something or other “for the exposure.” And I’m often asked to speak for free by small companies and nonprofits.Speaking for free has a lot of hidden costs

While none of us are jerky enough to say “NO!” outright, it’s important that the requesters think about what they’re asking for. They’re not just asking for an hour of our time, there’s so much more that goes into it.

When you ask us to to work for free, here’s what it costs us:

  • Preparation time: My wife hours creates a new set list for every show, and rehearses it for 2 – 3 hours beforehand, in addition to her normal practice. Paul has to make sure his equipment is assembled, working, and fully charged. And I spend anywhere from 3 – 6 hours for a 1 hour talk. All of us do this whether we get paid or not.
  • Travel time: Driving to a local event can take 60 – 120 minutes round trip. I’ve driven up to 5 hours away for talks outside Indiana. Toni has driven 2 hours one way for a single show.
  • Gas: Cars do not run on good intentions, they run on gas, which costs $3.35 per gallon right now. It takes anywhere from 2 – 20 gallons to get to where we’re going.
  •  The actual event: Toni typically sings for 2 – 3 hours. Paul’s photo shoot takes at least an hour if it’s an “easy” one. A good writer will write and edit for 3 – 4 hours. I speak for an hour. None of this includes pre-event setup, which takes roughly an hour for any of us.
  • All of that leads to lost work time: We get paid for our jobs. That’s how we feed our families and run our businesses. When you total up everything it took to do that free concert, photo shoot, article, or talk, we spent 4 – 12 hours not doing client work. That’s anywhere from a half day to a day-and-a-half of billables that we didn’t collect from clients.

So what does that work out to be? How much would that be for you? To figure out your regular hourly rate, take your hourly salary (your yearly salary divided by 2,000 hours per year) and multiply it by 4 and 12 (the range of hours).

That’s what it costs for you to work for free.

Based on a $60,000/year salary, that can be $120 – $360 of lost revenue.

Would you take an unpaid day off work to volunteer at a nonprofit? Or to help a friend move? What about taking an unpaid day to attend a conference, and pay your own way to travel there (but receive a free pass)?

If you expect us to work for free, will you also give up half to a day-and-a-half’s wages to show your gratitude and share our plight?

But that doesn’t mean we won’t do it.

Now, having said all that, none of the people I mentioned have become such egotistical jerks that we would never, ever work for free. We will.

Toni will sing for free at certain events, because not singing there can work against her. Paul will take the pictures, and the writers will write the articles, because sometimes the exposure is more important. And there are still groups and events where I’ll speak for free, because I consider it paying my blessings forward.

But it wasn’t until I started looking at what it was costing me in lost wages for that free one hour talk that made re-examine whether I would start charging to speak at events. And every other professional I’ve talked to has wrestled with this problem. Hell, we all still wrestle with it, even after we “turn pro.”

Should we do something beneficial for someone because it’s the good and right thing to do? Or do we say no to some very special people because our top priority is to take care of our families?

Over the past two months, I’ve had to cancel two free engagements because they conflicted with two paid ones, and I had even committed to the free ones first. I felt guilty about it. So guilty that I almost turned the paid ones down. It was Jason Falls who reminded me that my first responsibility was always to my family, and that sometimes I have to make the unpopular, un-fun decision to take care of them, like saying no to people I want to help.

Taking care of family means I have to turn down some important events down. It means Paul can’t load his very expensive camera equipment into his truck for an easy photo shoot. It means Toni won’t load her entire PA system into her car for a free performance. And it means the writers won’t even turn on their computers for some free exposure.

These costs are why I charge for my speaking engagements, or at least ask people to buy copies of my books. That’s not to say that every talk I give will be a paying one, or that I’ll require the organizers to purchase 100 copies of my book.

But hopefully it will help you understand why I — and my family, friends, and colleagues — may say no when you ask us to work for a “quick freebie.” (Hopefully it will also help you understand you need to bring your A-game when you’re going to convince us that working for free is worth it.)

And of course, if we do work for free, a little thank you gift, like a Starbucks or Barnes & Noble gift card is always appreciated.

Photo credit: NoHoDamon (Flickr, Creative Commons)

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    About Erik Deckers

    Erik Deckers is the President of Pro Blog Service, a content marketing and social media marketing agency He co-authored four social media books, including No Bullshit Social Media with Jason Falls (2011, Que Biz-Tech), and Branding Yourself with Kyle Lacy (3rd ed., 2017, Que Biz-Tech), and The Owned Media Doctrine (2013, Archway Publishing). Erik has written a weekly newspaper humor column for 10 papers around Indiana since 1995. He was also the Spring 2016 writer-in-residence at the Jack Kerouac House in Orlando, FL.


    1. I figure that it takes me 10-14 hours to do a 1 hour presentation. Even if it’s the same presentation I’ve given it still takes me near that between all that has been mentioned in this post along with all the time it takes to organize everything, read contracts, etc.

      The #1 thing I ask myself when I’m being asked to speak is “how many of my ideal clients will be in attendance”. Then I ask them what they’re paying!

    2. Paul Lorinczi says

      There has to be an ROI for everything we do in business.

      The only case for free is if you are getting started and are trying to establish a brand. After a couple of freebies, your time has value.

      If you are doing a speaking engagement, there should be an ROI for it in the form of business leads, partnerships or additional opportunities. The first list of questions should be:

      1. How many are attending?
      2. Who are they?
      3. What decisions do they make?
      4. Is there an opportunity for leads?
      5. If so, how many?

      As I sit in business meetings with prospects, the only thing they are worried about are leads.

      As a former employee used to say to his distributors, “I have a family to feed.” If people can’t respect this, they are a waste of time. Being nice does not put food on the family table. Our economic system requires us to generate revenue to meet our obligations. To say otherwise is ignoring reality.

    3. You have hit on the nail so perfectly in your blog that I can’t wait to share it with all of my friends.
      In the field of interfaith engagement we bring people of all beliefs together to create dialogue and after-dialogue activities to benefit the larger community. Many people who ask veteran interfaith activists to speak professionally (including by clergy who are employed themselves and receive regular salaries) don’t realize that we also need to care for our families and pay the monthly mortgage. Many expect us to appear and speak without an honorarium because, as they say, “it is for good will.” Susan Harrow, who teaches people how to prepare powerful soundbites for radio & TV interviews, said this to me when I was lamenting how challenging it is to convince the mainstream culture that those of us creating “good will” for the world need to be compensated like everyone else working for a living: “Next time someone says ‘I thought you would do it for free for good will,” she said, “Tell them: ‘Should I be paid for bad will instead?'” Humor aside, I know that many of us will continue to show up to speak or perform or film for free because we are so passionate about our cause or because we recognize the larger value of the cause we serve. Nevertheless, we should start to assess our time, as Erik so eloquently laid out in his blog, and then do it when we can and not feel guilty if we can’t. Bravo Erik! You touched a very sensitive chord for many of us free-lancers, and it feels good and timely to talk about it. Thanks!

    4. Thank you! As a teacher I am *constantly* asked to work for free – in fact, I’ll be working for free all next week. So when parents ask me to put together a packet just for their child, for extra credit or because they scheduled a 2 week vacation during the school year, I have to judge whether it’s worth it to spend the several extra hours finding and assembling the work and then grading it when they come back. This is very common, and if I were to include it in my hourly net wage, I’d be making about $7/hr. instead of the $9.16/hr I actually net. Because I love and enjoy spending time with my family, I often say no to these special requests. It’s not worth it to me to continually put the families of other people above my own.

    5. Crystal Abrell says

      I was just asked to write a “quick article” because I am “such a better writer” for a co-worker’s car club magazine. Not to mention the day before I go on vacation for a week. I more than understand this frustration.

    6. Anonymous says

      I was just asked to write a “quick article” because I am “such a better writer” for a co-worker’s car club magazine. Not to mention the day before I go on vacation for a week. I more than understand this frustration.

    7. Hello,

      All such good points. I am a NYC guide, specializing in Ellis Island. I do about two free tours a year. One for a group of WW II veterans, who were kind enough to invite me to dinner with them in Little Italy.

      I subsequently gave a free tour for a Canadian opera company, part of a raffle package. I never got a thank you from either the couple, nor the opera company, nor any copies of publicity. I was pretty surprised that the opera company did not provide these folks with some sort of a gift to thank all of us who were part of the raffle.

      A college in Queens wanted a free tour. I turned them down, though the students were by no means wealthy. I figured the teachers live off the employment these students provide. Let them pay for the kids.

      An out-of-state tour operator wanted a tour, as she was considering an event at Ellis Island. I agreed to do it but told her I would not refuse a tip. Two people were on the tour and they gave me $40. They told me of all the free dinners they had in the city….and now I bet I was part of what almost feels like a scam.

      I sure am careful what freebies I agree to give.

      Tom B.

      • I never realized that tour guides were basically self-employed. I thought you were all hired by the city or something. I suppose that makes sense as I think about it. There are bus tour companies, so why wouldn’t there be walking tour companies?

        It’s a shame that a lot of groups, like the Canadian opera company, don’t even have the courtesy to say thank you. It’s those thank yous (and lack thereof) that influence significantly whether I speak again for that group. If they can’t even say a simple thank you, I decline their next invitation.

    8. Erik I love how well you shared the flip side to this situation that frankly bothers me that many do not take the time to think about when making their requests.

      What is more disturbing are conferences that claim they never pay speakers – when in fact they are profiting from not adding speakers fees to their budget lines.

      When you take advantage of the fact we have been in a recession and everyone is wanting to do their part to build that recovery process for all businesses – then that is all kinds of down low in my book to benefit and not be in integrity.

      Reminds me of the quote where – gosh darn it I forgot how that thing goes – I will come back when I find it.

      Thanks for laying this out so well Erik. I had been contemplating writing a post just like this and still might.

      • Michele,

        It’s those conferences that charge money and don’t pay speakers that really frost me. If it’s a cheap conference, that’s one thing, because they’re covering their costs. But it’s the ones that charge $500 and more but refuse to pay speakers that are the worst. They’re the ones that will usually pay the main keynoter (the most famous one), but not the second tier of keynoters.

    9. Thanks for sharing this Eric – I too am torn. As a writer, presenter, and musician I’m often asked to do freebies. Our band recently preformed at two Relay for life events. How could you turn those down? You and I both presented at TEDx Fort Wayne for free…wait did they pay you? Again, good group and I justified it as good for business. I write guest posts weekly, which I consider part of the business. I’ve had a difficult time determining where to draw the line. I believe Jason’s advice is good for all of us faced with this dilemma – family first. Great post. Can I charge for comments over 100 words?

      • I think the biggest determiner should be “how much will I lose if I say yes, and can I afford it?” If it’s someone who wants a freebie at a place where I’ll already be, then yes, probably. But if someone is 2 hours away, then I at least want travel covered. Again, it depends on the group, but I can’t lose money on a freebie anymore. That means I can’t drive 2, 3, or 4 hours, pay for gas, and drive 2 – 4 hours back. That’s an entire day lost, plus any prep time beforehand.

        And no, the pay level for comments is 400 words.

        • Wow what a great post. I agree there needs to be some balance in deciding. If an event puts me in front of key decision makers (people who can hire me for fee-based speaking) then it’s definitely worth doing for free especially if it is local or they are covering travel expenses. But I have a hard time drawing the line too. I will often say yes even if there won’t be decision-makers who can hire me for speaking, but if the audience is my primary niche client who might join one of my online training programs I can make it up in later sales. I have learned not to count on promises of “exposure” or back of the room sales though, it’s too unpredictable. So you have to be willing to kiss that time/$ goodbye and if you get some business out of it, great. Personally with a busy family life I have to be discerning. Thanks for saying what a lot of us feel and would like expressed!