Work Advice: Freelance doesn't mean free

Posted6/9/2013 6:32 AM

Q: I'm a writer. Retired but still freelancing. I'm a pretty fair writer with a lot of experience. But what I'm really good at is computer-aided publication. I can create attractive and effective booklets and brochures, printer-ready.

I've had two requests for promotional booklets from the retirement facility where I live. The first one involved heroic efforts to meet a crunch deadline. I worked hard and long on it. The result was pleasing to the facility director, who had requested it. So I submitted a bill. "Oh, no," she said. "We can't pay you for this."


Whyever not, I wonder? Yes, I'm a resident, but why does that mean my professional services are free?

Now I'm doing the second project for this facility. Yes, I know ... fool me once, etc. But I was pleased to be asked.

Sometimes I wish I were a plumber or a paperhanger -- the kind of worker everyone knows has to be paid. But what can I the writer do?

A: The term "freelance" originally referred to mercenary soldiers: "free" meaning unaffiliated, and "lance" referring to their pointy weapons. Apparently your facility's director has reinterpreted it as "someone you can stick it to without paying."

First rule of freelancing: Do no unpaid work. Never start a project without a contract spelling out payment, deadlines and milestones, for your protection and the client's. Without a contract, the client may well assume you're volunteering -- which is why plumbers, paperhangers and other professionals have you sign something up front.

If time is money, what value are clients assigning to your time when they're paying you zilch? What value are you assigning to your own time when you continue to accept nothing? I realize it's flattering to be in demand -- especially when you've retired or are trying to break into a market. But consider this: Your retirement community is presumably not a shoestring charity that depends on volunteers, but a commercial entity with a marketing budget. Saving money is nice, but not crucial to its survival. Furthermore, every professional-grade project you complete pro bono is a contract denied to professionals who can't possibly compete with your rates. Your arrangement is devaluing your skills and theirs.

It's probably too late to get paid for the work you've done. But what you can do, right now, is memorize this statement and repeat as needed: "With my other commitments, I'm no longer able to volunteer my services." Either they'll take the hint and start paying for your services, or you'll then be free to find a cause that truly needs your valuable skills.

• Karla L. Miller has written for and edited tax publications for 16 years, most recently for the accounting firm KPMG's Washington National Tax office.

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