3 Reasons Why You Should Work For Free

For a long time, I did all my creative work for others completely free of charge (or next to free). I had to do this out of necessity, but because I enjoyed making videos and playing with web design, I really didn't mind. Of course, I looked forward to the day when I had the experience and the portfolio to start getting paid for these projects. After years and thousands of hours of practice, that day finally came and I started charging a fair price for my creative work. Then something really terrible happened - I lost my passion for what I was doing. My childlike wonder and creativity was replaced by an adult, business-driven motivation. Not surprisingly, my passion for creative projects dried up and I actually stopped making things altogether. I was miserable. I sold my video equipment. I stopped making websites. No more graphic design. I honestly thought I had lost all my interest in doing any artistic projects. But that wasn't true at all.

It wasn't until 2011, when God was really revealing the depth of his character and grace to me for the first time, that I began to rediscover a passion that I had lost. After two years of spiritual wondering, I had started attending Arrowhead Church, an event that God used to radically change who I was and the things I cared about. One of the elders at the church heard that I used to do video work for churches and asked if I would make a testimony video for the area YoungLife. For some reason, I said yes.

That "yes" has changed my life.

Though I had previously given a hard "no" to every creative job offer for several years, even the ones that would pay fairly well, I suddenly wanted to pick up a camera and tell a story again. Something had changed - I was motived by the art, by the story, and not by the money. This YoungLife video was about something meaningful - it was the story of how a girl's commitment to the gospel and her relationship with younger students led to people meeting Jesus for the first time. That is a story that matters! I took the job, under the impression that I wasn't getting paid for it. And I loved it.

Incidentally, this one "yes" led to me getting a contracted freelance job, sharing meaningful stories to tens of thousands of people, leading the marketing teams of nation-wide projects and campaigns, directing a documentary film over a summer in the Philippines, and having the opportunity to serve as the full time creative director of Arrowhead Church.

I learned something through all this.

Whatever you do, do it because it is meaningful; because it is something you believe in (1 Corinthians 10:31). 

Now, I have bills and money certainly helps to pay for living, eating, driving, giving, etc., but I do everything I can to keep my focus on the advancement of the gospel, the communication of the character of God, and my own love of creating something new. Money solves the problem of sustainability - but as often as possible, I try to do as many free (or close to free) projects for non-profits, ministries, and other churches as possible. I've found this to be a critical disciple in my life. I think every creative person should work for free, at least a little here and there, and here is why:

1. It Gives You Freedom to Experiment

Probably my favorite part about doing projects for free is that it's a great time to try something new. I use these projects to experiment. You don't have the shackles of a contract or paid expectations - it is pure creativity. I get to try things I am too scared to on paid projects. Because of this, so many of these projects I do for free end up being my favorites - and it drastically benefits the paid projects I do on contract for others. I gain a ton of new experiences from free projects. It benefits everyone.

2. It Keeps Your Motives Pure

Doing projects for free means there is something other than money that is motiving me. I do these projects because I believe they are meaningful and because I love what I do. It forces me to further cultivate my love of storytelling. Rather than sucking the passion from within me, like happened several years ago, I rekindle that childlike wonder and creativity.

Similarly, I have found that doing personal projects for myself and no one in particular also helps cultivate a passion for the art, rather than money. For example, on the side I have been making a children's book just for fun. I don't spend a lot of time on these personal projects, but they do help me maintain a love for what I do.

There are definitely other negative motivations I need to watch for, like a desire for affirmation and fame, but subtracting money from the equation helps keep my motives in check significantly.

3. It Genuinely Helps Someone

Churches, ministries, non-profits - most of them have no way of communicating what they do or how they need help at the level and quality they actually require. Marketing, branding, and promotion are all major assets that could transform a ministry, but the very necessity of their financial care for others leaves next to nothing for spreading their message to the masses. That's where we can step in and help.

My purpose in life is not to make money. It's not to build up the name of Arrowhead Church. I believe that I am designed to glorify Jesus and to serve other people. I want to be a part of a global church where believers serve other believers for the sake of these two goals. Any opportunity I have to build the Kingdom of God I deeply desire to take - and I have those opportunities through the talents I've cultivated, the gifts I've been given, and the time I have.

Now I definitely want to clarify something. By the raw fact of choosing which project I do for free, I declare "this is something I truly, authentically believe in." It focuses on others instead of myself - which in some backwards way, is gratifying. The truth is, I love to do stuff for free as often as I can. If someone said, "Jared, I will pay for everything for you for the rest of your life," I would truly work for free all the time. I get to do what I love for a purpose I believe in - that's incredible. It would be a total lie to say, "Look what a sacrifice I'm making to help these people," because I find joy in it. And that's ok. Everyone wins.

How I Choose Which Projects to Do For Free

As I said, I can't afford to do every project request for free. I know how many bills I have each month, and once those are covered, any free time I have I dedicate to making things for other people at no cost to them. There is no formula I use to decide which ones I do, I just pray about it. Every time, the Lord has clearly spoken to me and led me in the right direction.

A week ago, for instance, I was praying and I felt like God wanted me to make a new website for a new ministry - but I had no idea who. An hour later, I got an email from a guy I've met only once asking if I could give him some suggestions for a ministry based website he wanted to start. I immediately knew this was the guy God was preparing me for an hour earlier. This has been the case every time. I believe God will actually use me when I surrender to him and make myself available - I've seen it happen.

That said, here are some rules I follow before I offer to do a project for free:

  • I only say yes when there is a clear need.
  • I only say yes when the project will help people (so ministry or non-profit, for example).
  • I only say yes if I feel the Lord led me to do so.
  • I don't say yes until I know I can commit 100% to a project.
  • I don't say yes if I can't adequately meet a need.

I do have to say no - and often. I can't do everything, but I can do some. And I think every creative person should as well.