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Truth, courtesy of The Oatmeal. 

Hey  <<First Name>>, 

Whether to take on a project without pay is something that all creatives have to asked themselves at some point. It is not that different from how the rat race is structured for non-creative professionals. When it comes to most skilled labor, people want to know that you can do something before they pay you to do it. This proof may be in the form of certification from a college or technical school, an internship, volunteer opportunities, or through an independent project. People want proof before they pay, and that’s understandable. 

However, if you know you can do the work, they know you can do the work, and they aren't talking dollars and cents, what do you do?

Only you can decide if you want to take on a project with no monetary compensation, but here’s a brief checklist you can use to help you make that decision. 

For any opportunity you’re not getting paid for:

  • Do you get to determine most of the scope of the project? For example, if someone wants a video project or a music track, do you get a final say in what it is and how much time and resources you devote to it?
  • Is the potential client/partner willing to give you a referral, a reference, a testimony or something else that will help you promote your craft and your business?
  • Is the potential client/partner covering any expenses related to the project?
  • If the client is not covering the expenses:
    • Can you write-off the related expenses on your business taxes?
    • Are these expenses you can use for future projects, such as equipment?
  • Will you retain reasonable rights and ownership of the final product?
  • Will you enjoy the project and/or working with the people involved with it?
  • Is the finished product likely to be a strong and diverse addition to your resume/portfolio/CV?
  • Is there a clear end date for the project, and/or clarity and agreement about what the final project will look like?

If the benefit offered is EXPOSURE:

  • Is your potential client/partner's clientele/fanbase significantly larger or different from yours?
  • Are you allowed to include not only your name, but the name of your brand/social media presences/website/email list sign-up form prominently on the finished product?
  • Is the potential client/partner also working on this project without direct compensation? For example, a popular blog that’s not yet monetized or documentary that’s in the development stages?
  • Is there a potential for a deferred payment agreement? Meaning, if the project makes money/gets funding, do you have a written agreement stating that you will receive competitive compensation after the project is finished and distributed?
  • Will you get a significant role (producer, editor, lead artist, etc) in exchange for your work that will look good in your portfolio/resume/CV?

If the benefit offered is RELATIONSHIP/NETWORK BUILDING:

  • Will you be working with professionals/creatives whose work you admire?
  • Do these professionals/creatives have connections with other professionals/creatives whose work you admire?
  • Will you have opportunities outside of work to be social with your new creative colleagues?
  • Is there someone who will provide you feedback on your work, as oppose to just submitting your work and never hearing back about it?
  • Is your new creative partner willing to provide you with a product/service in exchange for your work? For example, if you’re producing a video for a musician for free, will the musician be willing to score a project for you?

If the benefit offered is a POTENTIAL PAID GIG:
Note: It’s becoming more common to work on a mini-project as a part of an application process for some jobs. For some jobs, like programming, it makes sense, but otherwise I’m weary of this. For other types of work, your portfolio should suffice. Follow your gut when these kinds of opportunities show up.

This can also be an opportunity to be attached to a project before it is funded, similar to a deferred payment agreement. It could also include working as a contributor for a publication a few times before you are hired as a contract or staff writer. 

In addition to the previous items on the checklist: 

  • Do you have a written and signed agreement for the project that includes the stipulation for future paid work? NOTE: This is uncommon and may be difficult to get from some clients/partners, but if you can get it, it’s a good sign.

If you can answer "yes" to a good number of these questions (four or more), the project may be worth your time. 

I’ve taken on free projects that have yielded great opportunities and I’ve had paid projects that provided little more than a check. Free work can boost your career and craft if you choose it wisely. 

Do you ever work for free? Let me know on Twitter or Facebook with the hashtag #HWForFree 

Keeping it 💯 , 

P.S. If you aren't about that free work life under any circumstances, this video interview with author Harlan Ellison is for you (3:25). 

Highwater Weekly Picks  

  • WOMEN IN FILM-The Made in NY Media Center by IFP has partnered up with Vimeo for the first Share the Screen Fellowship, a unique opportunity that will award one female content creator with a six-month incubator membership to develop their project. Deadline is April 28. More info here
  • Listen to Taylor McFerrin's remix of Haitus Kaiyoke's Laputa featuring Anderson.Paak. It's like someone figured our a way to perfectly combine pound cake, cookie dough ice cream and mochi balls. You didn't know you needed it until you had it. 

  • The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is BIKE (c)! It premiered today at 2:01 CST on Netflix. Get ya binge on. 
  • The first trailer for Nate Parker's The Birth of a Nation just went live. He's doing what he did for ol' girl in Beyond the Lights for the whole film industry, and I am grateful. The trailer made me a sniffling mess, so I'm guessing I'll need therapy, bible study, and Reiki after watching the whole movie. 
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