Should You Ever Work for Free?

In a still-uncertain economy, this is a question that’s on a lot of people’s minds, especially leaders who are looking to enhance their skills and network.  Some consider taking internship or volunteer positions to break ground in a new industry, while others work for free so that they can develop relationships with clients who may eventually pay them.

Assess Your Situation

Still, it’s not for everyone.  When deciding whether or not to work for no pay, you should first determine if you can afford it.  What is your family’s financial situation, and are you gainfully employed in another role?  It’s also smart to assess – specifically – how each position will deliver value in terms of your long-term prospects.  Don’t be afraid to ask the person with whom you are working for free.  Contrary to what some believe, most people are not interested in exploiting workers and will be open to discussions about what’s in it for you.

The proposed time commitment is an important factor too.  Those who are employed should not devote more than 20-25 hours a week to an unpaid gig, or they risk burning out or short-changing the job that pays the bills.

Make the Most of It

If you have limited experience in the field, the person watching over your work during an unpaid gig may play it safe by giving you small tasks.  Don’t let her.  Get involved with as many large, complex projects as possible, jumping at the opportunity to challenge yourself, master new skills, and be exposed to people who perform a variety of roles.  And as with any job, make sure that you’re able to quantify your contributions.

Leave on a Strong Note

When the end of your volunteer stint draws near, think about whether you want to pursue a full-time, paid opportunity in the new field or with the contacts you’ve made.  If nothing arises right away, actively keep in touch with the people you’ve met through e-mail, social networks, or even better, occasional in-person get togethers.

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