Working for Free: Questions to Consider

Blog / Produced by The High Calling

“If I never got to make a living doing what I loved, I'd still do it—for fun and for free.” —Susan E. Isaacs, Angry Conversations with God

Long before she had a book contract, Susan E. Isaacs wrote every day. What she wrote eventually became the substance of her book. In fact, many artists work diligently for years without being compensated financially, because they love what they do or they need experience and connections. Being paid is not the be-all or end-all when it comes to the work we do.

Let’s face it, though: most of us need to work for a living. We have bills to pay and a limited number of waking hours in the day, not to mention the fact that being paid for our work is a good and godly way of showing appreciation and placing value on what we do (1 Tim. 5:18).

How do we balance the passion for work that we do for free or low pay with the need to earn a decent living?

Here are some questions I consider when deciding whether or not to take unpaid work.

Will this add significantly to my resumé?

During some seasons of professional life, we simply need experience. As a young actor starting out, I took parts without getting paid in order to bolster my resumé, gain exposure, and make connections.

Will this take a toll on my family or faith?

This is the biggest question I have to address nowadays. In the past, if I worked a full-time day job and did unpaid acting work on evenings and weekends, the only person it affected was me. Today I have a family to consider. When I am paid for a role, it is worth the juggling act (and babysitters!) required to make it possible. When I am not paid, it rarely makes sense.

By the same token, during those years of working seven days a week, I had little meaningful Christian fellowship and no Sabbath rest. We are not meant to live that way, and if we do not have a healthy work-rest ratio, our faith will suffer.

Will I grow to resent this?

I was asked to write an article for the launch of a new magazine. After discussing the theme and word count, I asked about compensation. “Oh, you would expect to be paid?” they asked, surprised. I explained my standard on unpaid writing work and why they needed to add writers’ fees to their budget—not just for me, but for others as well. I did write the article as a favor, but it took many hours, and when the editor came back to me with extensive changes, I began to regret that decision. I wanted the work to be excellent, but the amount of time and energy it took for me to get there with no compensation taught me a valuable lesson in knowing when to decline unpaid work.

Do I want to do this?

It’s a simple but very important question. Two years ago, I took the role of “Truvy” in a community theater production of Steel Magnolias, because it was a role I had always wanted to play and I didn’t know when I might have another chance. By taking it on, I was fulfilling a personal dream, and that is a great reason to work for free.

Do I need the money?

A last, but important question is, can I afford to do this if I’m not going to get paid? During my first three years in New York City, I worked full-time in an office and spent evenings and weekends at the theater in rehearsals and performances. I was able to live on an office temp’s wages, because I had roommates and lived very cheaply. Later, however, I wanted a higher quality of life, including an apartment of my own and a car. I had to start turning down unpaid acting opportunities, because they would no longer work with my lifestyle.

While there are very good reasons to work without being paid, from gaining valuable work experience to pursuing a personal passion, it is important to be discerning about whether it is the right move for you. After all, I expect that even Susan E. Isaacs would agree that there is a limit to the fun of working for free.


Working for Free

In this series, Working for Free, we'll take a look at the different ways people navigate the world of working in a job they love, even when it might not be the way they make ends meet. Join the discussion or share your story in the comments. What do you think? Is passion enough?