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Does Freelance Mean Free?

In starting out as a freelancer you might find that you have to volunteer a lot. This didn’t bother me as I really enjoy the work. Contributing can be enjoyable and it means that you can gain a lot of experience while bulking up your CV. It’s a great opportunity to gain contacts and to get a feel for your chosen industry too.

But where is the line between getting experience and getting taken advantage of?

A lot of freelancers starting out are also working a full time job as an employee. This will take up a lot of time, which means spare time is spent working as well, but with no financial return. I assume that this is how it goes for all freelancers starting out, in all industries?

It is understandable that as a freelancer you have to prove yourself as you don’t have the backing of a big name or well-known company and I think that the idea of contributing is a really good one. It means that you get a chance to prove yourself before contracts or money issues get in the way of the most important thing: the product or service you are providing. But how long should you provide your services for free before asking for payment? Will asking this question cause you to lose contacts/experience?

How do you break into full time freelancing? You need to be sure that you are earning enough to cover the bills before you can break away from any other employment you might have, if this is your goal.

Do you have any advice for freelancers starting out in relation to giving their services for free and in how to get paid for work?

I think you have to build relationships first by showing your interest and dedication to your chosen field. If you can do a good job and are reliable then employers/clients should come to you, as long as they know where to find you!

Fiona White is a freelance journalist based in Waterford, specialising in all aspects of radio production and print services. She has worked at Today FM, 98FM and writes for online and print publications and websites. Having studied Radio Production and Media Production Management at Ballyfermot College of Further Education and Print Journalism at Independent Colleges and having worked at various radio stations in Dublin, Fiona has moved to her hometown of Waterford and set up as a freelancer. For further information please email

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  • Anonymous

    Interesting post. Working for free had benefits for me earlier in my career. Even now, volunteering is leading to paid work. But the line is indeed fine and freelancers should define a period for which they are willing to work for free and stick to it. After that, unless they are very interested in the cause, they should insist on being paid. From a fellow freelance journalist in Waterford.

  • Hi Fiona, I agree that there is a line between getting experience and getting taken advantage of & you have gotta to be careful. Make sure its win win for both 🙂

  • Depending on what you do, sites like give you the opportunity to do some trial/free work at very little risk. I don’t think anyone that knows their stuff should really work for free. Even if you are learning, “learning rates” should apply 🙂

  • Hi Fiona,

    Lets be honest – we all want something for nothing if given a choice! Thats why most companies love volunteers. But despite the fact that it is useful to gain experience for the freelancer, something is clearly missing. That something is the sense of satisfaction when you are paid for a job well done. Money makes you work harder. The phase ‘you get what you pay for’ is spot on in most cases. A volunteer can opt in or opt out. Quality isn’t of paramount importance, neither is reputation. From the other side – payment shows respect as a business associate to another.
    Companies can easily take advantage.
    You do mention volunteering as a second job – in this case, its usually because the cause is important to you or something you do out of friendship, love etc ie Helping out at your local club, assisting at a shelter or home. The payment here is usually the ‘feel good feeling’ afterwards and not money….. if money is there from your main job.


  • I’m with Christine on this one. A phrase I was raised with was “pay peanuts and get monkeys”. I think people should be paid for their work. There is a huge difference between gaining “work experience” which is usually what we do when we are newly qualified in a field (I know for most coaches that ranges from 30-60 hours of one-to-one coaching pro bono) and doing work for free. It is a fine line and one that is easily crossed.

    I recently attended a seminar where some of the newer qualified people were offering their services at a reduced cost with a caveat that those signing up gave a testimonial and allowed themselves to be used as a genuine case study on the seller’s websites – a good idea, I thought. The seller decided on a finite number and didn’t cross it.

    I think for anyone starting out, like any other part of their business they could do with planning this part with as much detail as possible and set down their parameters and stick to them. For some it will be pro bono, for others it will be reduced cost, for ALL it should involve gathering genuine testimonials for later use.

  • Anonymous

    Well done on starting a good discussion. Very often people are too eager to volunteer their services for free, without setting a clear time frame, agenda or goal.

    I wrote a similar article on Internships last November that received some great comments.

  • IF, and that’s a big IF for me, I was to provide pro-bono work to gain experience, there would be a definitive time line agreed with the company who are availing of my services.
    When I went free-lancing first, I knew my product, made sure I was qualified and worked part-time in VEC schools, before tackling real companies. Free-lancing for me was a step to being a business owner, and I am happy to report I have made that move without providing free work. But I had a lucky break and my “product” was tangible knowledge.
    Doing a favour or doing something for a cause is very different.

    I would recommend the “free” period to be as SHORT as possible, as it can be a trap to fall into, and never value your own work well, and go from free to too cheap.

    Valuing our knowledge, expertise, qualifications, transferable skills, life skills and confidence are important to help others value us also, I believe 🙂

    Fiona, thanks so much for raising important issues 🙂

  • Hi Christina, thanks for the comment. When I mentioned having another job I was referring to breaking away from another full time job into freelancing in another industry as can be necessary finance wise sometimes! I think a lot of freelancers love what they do but want to make money from it at the same time so that they can turn it into a career. In relation to journalism/writing you need to build up a portfolio at the start so you may need to contribute in order to do this. I would agree that more time and work would be put into a piece of work that you are getting paid for!

  • Hi Facundo!
    The only thing with knowing your stuff and only working when your getting paid is that in the journalism industry you have to prove yourself before you get a job, thats why offering your services for free is sometimes necessary to build up a portfolio of work.

  • Hi Mairead,
    I completely agree with your last point, the work that I have done for free is used in my portfolio in order to gain paid work! As well as loving what I do thats a good reason to do some work for free!

  • Hi Greg, thanks for the link…again:)
    I like the article, I do think that in some cases interns are ignored in relation to training and development. They are not as valued as paid employees. It’s different if you volunteer for a charity or a voluntary organisation of course because your time is valued. It’s difficult to say no to an internship too though as having it on your CV in some cases will help you to get a job.

  • Hi Elaine, thanks for the comment!
    I suppose its different in different industries. In journalism, as I have mentioned in other comments you need to have a portfolio of work, and in order to have that you may need to volunteer your services. It’s just a matter of making the transition into getting paid after a period of time I guess! and with the journalism industry in Ireland you have to have a really impressive body of work as the competition is so fierce.
    Also I think that in starting out doing some work for free can help to improve your confidence, if you get good feedback. For me getting my work published, even though I wasn’t getting paid for it definitely gave me more confidence to reach for higher goals that I may not have previously!

  • Hi Derbhile, Thanks for your comment.
    Nice to know there’s more than one of us! I think working for free in our industry can really help, especially when starting out to build a portfolio!

  • Anonymous


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