How to Stop Giving Away Your Time and Working for Free

Stop Working for FreeA friend of mine recently spent an entire day volunteering her services as a retail consultant for a small shop owner who couldn’t afford to pay her. She sorted inventory, rearranged displays and even helped with pricing strategies. As I sat listening to her talk about the job, I wondered why we agree to such things. Why do intelligent, successful women give away their time and work for free?

We like to believe it’s because we are generous. We have a heart for service and we know God calls on us to care for others. So we are ready and willing to take on whatever task is asked of us. I’m guilty of it, too – I’ve agreed to far too many lunch requests with someone who wants to “pick my brain.” And I’ve offered my writing and marketing services pro-bono for dozens of organizations – each of which has a noble cause. Why? Partly because I want to. But often because I feel I have to.

When someone is in need, we help them. That’s what we do, right? That’s just the way it works.

Not exactly. I want to remind you that it doesn’t have to work that way for you. YOU don’t have to be the one to step up Every Single Time something needs to be done. And you certainly don’t need to say yes when you’re asked to give away your time and professional expertise.

Trust me – I know you have valid reasons for saying yes:

“It may lead to something bigger.”

“They can’t pay me now, but if I do a good job, I’ll be the first one they call when there is money in the budget.”

“It will look good on my resume/portfolio.”

“It’s my duty to help others in need – I’ve been blessed and I want to give back.”

“If I don’t do it, nobody will.”

There may be an element of truth to your reasons but I’m going to challenge you to say no anyway. I want to encourage you to keep your priorities (rather than the needs of others) at the forefront of your decision-making. I know that sounds selfish but it’s really more a matter of staying focused.

Giving away your time and talent is a wonderful way to serve others – as long as it doesn’t derail us from God’s plan. If you are constantly putting your own business or ministry (or worse – your family!) on the back burner while you help others, then you’re not really living your purpose.

Sometimes our desire to help others is a distraction or procrastination technique. It prevents us from doing what God is calling us to do. Because it’s easier to be in charge of the silent auction for the third year in a row than it is to write that memoir about finding Jesus and healing from addiction.

If you really want to be a good steward of all your gifts, then be wise in the way you share your time and talent. You just might discover you have more time to do the things that matter most. And – you may even improve your bottom line!

Five Ways to Stop Giving Away Your Time and Working for Free:

1. Run the Numbers. Decide on a percentage of your product or service you will provide pro-bono and don’t go above that number. For example, if you are a portrait photographer you may decide to offer one day of your time per month to a local non-profit.  If you teach a course or workshop then you may offer a certain number of scholarships for every 10 paying students. Once you choose a reasonable number and start tracking your time, you’ll feel better about saying no to additional requests because you’ll be able to quantify the pro-bono work you are already doing.

2. Adopt-a-Cause. Choose a charitable cause for the year. Devote your time and energy to serving that organization and let people know you support their cause. Then, when you have to turn down a request, you can explain that you already donate products or services to that charity.

3. Practice Your No. Sometimes I agree to do something I don’t want to do simply because I don’t know what to say. That’s why it’s important to actually write down a scripted response to any requests for pro-bono work and practice it so you don’t have to think about it. Your reply should roll off your tongue and sound sincere. It might sound something like this:

“Thanks for thinking of me but I’m not going to be able to work on this for you now. I donate 10% of my professional time to non-profit organizations and I’ve already committed to working with the Make-a-Wish Foundation by producing their monthly newsletters.”

4. Collect Resources. When you can’t help someone out, it’s a good practice to give them a referral. So take a few minutes to go through your contact list and compile a list of people or companies who may be able to fill your shoes when a certain request comes your way. But be sure these folks are open to referrals for pro-bono work before you pass along their names!

You may even create a library of helpful free resources that you could give away for free in lieu of giving away your time. Perhaps there are templates, tutorials and checklists you could create that would allow someone to do the job themselves.

5. Use a Litmus Test. Sometimes it’s difficult to tell if donating your time is a wise decision. So create your own litmus test to help you determine if the request is in alignment with your goals. Ask yourself if the request will help you gain something valuable – like developing new skills or creating relationships. If you trade your time and expertise for something you truly value, then it’s not the same as giving away your work for free. But you have to be clear on what YOU want out of the arrangement.

Let’s practice here. Tell me what you will do the next time someone asks you to donate your time or professional expertise. 

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  • Kelly Geissman Head

    Wow- that’s so true! I know it certainly is a procrastination technique for me. Fear being the root. We can be afraid of failure or success and get in our own way on purpose. Subconsciencly of course. Thanks for this! Wake up call!!

    • http://www.theresaceniccola.com/ Theresa Ceniccola

      So true, Kelly – fear is the root. Thanks for sharing. Hope you are well:-)

  • Tammie T. Polk

    This is the exact reason why I am working on turning what I do into a business! I’m always getting calls or messages asking for my help, even though many people think being a homeschool consultant instantly makes you a 12-headed hydra… I needed this today!

    • http://www.theresaceniccola.com/ Theresa Ceniccola

      I love that, Tammie! You turned your ‘free services’ into a business and you’re filling a need – fabulous!

      • Tammie T. Polk

        Yes, it’s still in the development stages, but I’m getting it together! Just dealing with all the red tape.