Freelance Fails #3—Work Experience or Working for Free?


Not all unpaid work is created equal.  Images from Pixabay.

“She often said/ She’d never make the same mistake again:/ She always made a new mistake instead”

Wendy Cope*

I’m sure you’re all familiar with the following Catch-22: you need to gain experience of a certain role to move forward with your career, but the experience you’re lacking is one of the role’s central requirements.  One way around this problem (if you’re lucky enough to have some savings or someone to support you financially) is to do the role for free until you’ve built up enough CV points to ask someone to pay you for it.

When I was first dipping my toes into the waters of freelancing, back in November of last year, I applied to several unpaid roles to help me develop the breadth and depth of my writing experience.  I ended up taking on two voluntary writing/ editing positions with two very different organisations.  I’ll call them Group A and Group B.

What my experiences at these two organisations taught me is that there are vast differences in quality between the various work experience, internship and voluntary opportunities to be found out there.  There’s a fine line between participating in work experience that is valuable to both you and the company you’re working for, and simply being asked to give away your valuable time for free.  My time with Group A and Group B has helped me to find that line, and stay on the right side of it.

Group A Working in the Dark

Group A put out an ad offering a content writing work experience opportunity late last year.  It was one of the first freelance positions I ever applied for, and I was thrilled when a representative from the company got back to me and asked me when I could start.  It felt like my first break, and I began writing content for them on a regular basis.

To give credit where it’s due, the company always used my work, and always credited me for it.  The list of pros ends there, however.  After a few weeks of regular contributions, I asked my contact at the company, who was an intern herself, if she would mind including a short bio and photograph at the bottom of my pieces to direct readers to my site.  She apologetically informed me that she was not allowed to do this.

A few weeks later, I asked her if she could tell me a bit more about the company’s broader marketing strategy, and how my content writing fitted in with it.  To my surprise, I received an almost identical response: she didn’t think that she was allowed to discuss it with me.

Though I was grateful to Group A for using my work, my time with them was characterised by these sorts of interactions.  Attempts I made to meet other members of the team beyond my managers were rebuffed, questions I had were not answered, suggestions I made about new content were dismissed.

All of this left me with the impression that while Group A wanted my work, they weren’t prepared to give me much in return.  No training, no editing, no networking opportunities.

I was kept in the dark about the company’s wider strategy, and kept away from other team members.  As soon as I got my first paid freelance writing job, I contacted Group A to tell them I would not be writing for them anymore unless they wanted to hire me on a paid basis.  They did not.  I have never looked back.

Group B On the Same Page

Group B is a non-profit organisation for which I volunteer as a writer and editor.  Almost as soon as I started with them, I was introduced to a large team of other volunteers, all of whom were friendly and supportive.

I immediately felt welcomed and included.  My manager’s commitment to good communication cemented this first impression: regular meetings and a group work chat made it easy for everyone in the team to stay in touch and liaise about projects, keeping us all on the same page.

I was given training to help me carry out my role, and learnt some valuable new skills in the process.  Better still, after only a couple of weeks with Group B, a colleague gave me a lead which resulted in a paid project elsewhere.

Group B helped me to grow my client base, taught me new skills, and introduced me to great people.  My experience with them could not have been more different from my time with Group A, which is why I’m still volunteering for them now.

Spot the Difference

I have thought a lot about the biggest difference between Group A and Group B, and I think that what it boils down to is respect.

This is not to say that I wasn’t treated respectfully at Group A—the people I met there were uniformly polite and professional.  But the company as a whole did not have much respect to spare for its unpaid workers.  Take the interns I worked with, for example: they were given all the responsibility of managing me, but none of the authority to respond to my questions on their own initiative.  Their contributions were needed, but not valued.

Group B, on the other hand, is an organization that respects and appreciates hard work and effort, whether it is paid or unpaid.

Don’t underestimate the difference respect can make to workplace satisfaction and self-esteem.  Whether or not you’re being paid for your work, it’s always important to make sure that you are valued for it.

Lessons Learned

1. Good work experience teaches you new skills, connects you with interesting people, and provides (non-financial) rewards to compensate you for the work you do.  Most importantly of all, good work experience accords you the respect you deserve for donating your time and effort.

2. Bad work experience takes advantage of skills you already have, without giving you anything (training, networking opportunities, new experiences) in return.

3. Dont be afraid to ask for more training, more feedback, or more chances to learn and develop your skills. Your work and your time has value for the company or organization you’re working for—if they’re not paying you for it, make sure that they are rewarding you in other ways.

* This quote is from the excellent ‘Rondeau Redoublé’, a screamingly funny poem about dating disasters.  I may have taken it slightly out of context.

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