Good Reasons To Work For Free

hand lettered carboard sign saying will work for freeI work for free. A lot. Yes, that includes writing this article, indeed writing one every week for AOL Jobs and a separate one each week for U.S. News. And I'm in my 25th year producing and hosting "Work with Marty Nemko" on an NPR station in San Francisco, yes, for free.

Why? Because I don't know how to negotiate? Hardly. I've successfully negotiated, helped clients negotiate, and written articles on negotiation. Because I need career counseling clients and my articles and radio show are marketing tools? Not that either. My practice has long been full. Indeed, I turn away clients.

I do all that work for free because I have an irrepressible urge to self-express and -- at the risk of sanctimony -- to "make a difference." I believe nothing is more important to the life well-led.

Of course, if I didn't make a good enough living as a career counselor, I might have to turn down no-pay work to make time for bringing in the bucks. But I do, so I can afford to -- although I have to swallow -- subsidize those corporations that insist I work for free. I have to swallow particularly hard with my public radio show. NPR programs relentlessly urge employers to treat workers fairly. Yet when it comes time to part with a few of its zillions of dollars, it skirts the minimum wage law by asking so many of its workers, even executive producers and hosts like me, to work for free, even though my qualifications would hardly suggest I'm an entry-level guy.

Of course, there are reasons to work for free other than noblesse oblige or craving self-expression.

1. Even unpaid internships can be a launchpad to paid employment. Alas, in our tough job market, the percentage of interns who subsequently are offered paid work, which always had been low, seems to be declining further. So, before accepting an internship, you might want to ask your prospective boss, "What percentage of interns are subsequently offered paid work?" Even if the percentage is low, you still might want to do it if the internship provides mentorship and meaningful work experience or would make your resume more appealing to your target employers. But upfront, be sure you won't mainly be licking envelopes.

Similar to an internship is a formal or informal apprenticeship at the elbow of a master. That can be well worth it.

2. It's like getting your education one-on-one and for free. And it's practical, unlike at universities, where, too often, for an obscene price, your education is too liberally larded with abstruse theory and painfully lacking in practical utility.

3. It gives you access. Get on an important committee in your professional association, notably, the program committee. That committee tends to attract capable and well-connected people. In addition, in recruiting speakers for meetings and conferences, you gain access to additional top professionals, people you otherwise might never get access to.

4. It could lead to a new job. Volunteer to write a grant proposal for a nonprofit. It's tough for an organization to refuse that offer. It has nothing to lose and your efforts could land it big bucks, the nonprofit's life blood. And you might get a job, perhaps funded by the grant, as a thank-you gift.

5. It could open career doors. Serve on a nonprofit board of directors. Usually, boards are liberally laced with heavy hitters. And because you're working with them, you have ample chance to show your stuff.

6. Free work is another form of giving back. You also might want to consider unpaid work as your non-cash charitable contribution. Many people allocate time to causes from tutoring illiterates to building sets for community theater, to sitting with elders in hospice.

No matter what the unpaid work, consider each interaction an audition. Impressing may yield you useful career information or advice, a job lead, or even a job. Key to career and life success is spending as much time as possible around people who could help you grow.

If a goal of your volunteering is to enhance a career, consider negotiating for a resume-building title -- for example, manager or director.

It can feel demeaning to have to work for free, but the wise person doesn't give that disproportionate weight in deciding whether to do it. Dispassionately consider the pros, cons and opportunity costs. You may well find unpaid work worth it. Swallow.

The San Francisco Bay Guardian called Dr. Nemko, "The Bay Area's Best Career Coach" for his work with individuals and organizations. He was Contributing Editor for Careers at U.S. News where he now also blogs. His recent books: How to Do Life: What they didn't teach you in school and What's the Big Idea? 39 Disruptive Proposals for a Better America. More than 1,000 of his published writings are free on He posts here weekly.

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