Someone asking you to work for free? This is how to handle unpaid project requests.

Imagine yourself sipping your tea or coffee while working on a project, and all of a sudden your phone goes beep beep. You check your notifications and see that a not-so-close contact of yours has sent a message like:

Hey, I need your help. There is this project, blah blah blah…

The message goes on and on about how important the project is, and it would be great if you could help out. They invite, sort of expect you to make your input, to work on something or give your expertise to make this whatever super important project of theirs happen.

If you are working as a freelancer, consultant, or a small online entrepreneur then you will get such requests for free assignments, there is no way around it. All of us are getting these from time to time. On one hand, this means that you are regarded as a competent expert, but on the other hand, you don’t want to waste your time.

What makes all the difference is how you react, and how you handle these unwelcomed requests for unpaid jobs?

Before anything else, evaluate the request and the circumstances

First of all, you need to find out what is this really about, and most importantly: are they willing to pay or not?

Some of these guys who like to ask for free stuff, will disclose upfront that they were not considering paying for your help. Others do not have the balls to declare it, or they have some respect for you, or simply do not want to lose the opportunity to get what they need — for free.

Before you would go ahead and discuss pricing, it’s better to assess the project to see how much effort it would require from your end.

Ideally, even before discussing payments and such, try to estimate how much effort or time would it require for you to do what they want. Even if you suspect that they will not pay, keep yourself calm and go with the flow a bit. It will make them invested in your negotiation and you will have a slightly higher chance to turn it into a paid project.

At the same time, try to assess the financial status of the person or the company, which will also help you to drive a more successful negotiation, in case they have some willingness to pay you.

In my opinion, it is perfectly fine to do small favors for people and companies who have already paid you, or currently paying you. Especially if it is not going to take too much of your time. It is also okay to help out someone with a bit of advice, or other ways that do not require extensive effort from your end.

But when someone is expecting you to commit to extended efforts for a longer period… that is not acceptable. It is not cool.

Ask this question to find out how important the project is for them

If you feel that what they ask for is more than just a tiny bit of favor, or you think that they could, and should pay — then respond with the following simple question:

“Who is going to pay for this?”

This is what you need to ask.

Do not even quote a price. Do not go into details, just ask “who is going to pay for this?” Their response will answer most of your questions and dilemmas.

You will find out if this project is really important, and who is it important for? If it is not important enough for anyone to pay for it, then why would it be important for you?

They will try to pitch this as an opportunity for you — ignore it

In most cases, they will get back to you claiming that this job, I mean this “small favor”, is your foot in the door. It is your chance, a great opportunity to showcase your professionalism and expertise, also to show off with this project in your portfolio, which will help you to get clients. But anyway, they cannot pay. No offense, but in my opinion, this is straight bullshit.

Another typical bullshit is when they claim that accepting this favor is going to help you to develop a strong connection with important people who might open some doors for you at a later stage. This stinks even worse for me. Why would anyone want to do favors and build a relationship with people who don’t respect your time? Or cannot pay you for your work? Who needs these kinds of people?

If they try to reason with the above, ask for a favor in return before you accept the project. Ask them to introduce you to someone, to give a shiny recommendation, or to utilize their connections to get something done for you. That is a clear value exchange. Promises are not.

Personally, I find it the most offensive when CEOs, chairmen, presidents, and other financially established individuals approach me with this “help us out” cringe.

I heard of cases when they were avoiding payments that were more than a weekend getaway to a nice hotel or resort, or a meal in a nice restaurant for their “very important” group of friends. So I find it incredibly disrespectful when these high profile individuals seek to make use of other people.

Refuse free project requests clearly

When things get this far, or you come to the conclusion that their expectation is unfair then just refuse it clearly, and if they keep bothering you, then stop getting back to them.

Refusing such requests is going to increase your reputation, credibility, and professional value on the market. Because those people who you refuse, and their peers, will understand that you don’t have time for their nonsense. They will see you as an expert, a valuable professional on the market who has better things to do than helping them for free.

So I would personally advise that if you are getting approached to carry out free projects, and you feel that it is more than just a small favor, just ask who is going to pay for it?

If they refuse to pay, or just respond with made-up crap about future opportunities and getting your foot in the door, then just simply ignore them. This will benefit not only your reputation but also your mental wellbeing and self-esteem.

Easy going entrepreneur living in Malta. Proud owner of hotel consulting company Daniel Diosi & Partners, and Brand Auditor. Sports, health, good times 🤟