Let's first define our terms. Whether you're a freelancer or not, working "for free" means you do work and you get nothing in exchange -- no money, no exposure, no access, no benefit.
Well, of course, that's no way to grow a business. You have to pay the rent, as they say, and to do so, you must find clients who value your services and are willing to pay a fair price for them. Then you must have the confidence to pursue those clients, since they aren't usually the ones who come knocking on your door.
In fact, new freelancers often ask me if they should offer a discount to a client because they're learning on the job or because the project is for a non profit and the answer is also always: NO. Don't volunteer a discount if someone doesn't ask for it.
[We're not talking about pro bono work here, by the way, which you may choose to do "for the public good" under circumstances which you determine for yourself. That also doesn't count as working for free, by my definition.]
But I'm not a purist and, once the rent is paid, there are situations when money isn't the only -- or not even the best -- compensation. There are times when something else is more valuable, like access and visibility.
In fact, we'll be publishing shortly another guest post by a freelance copywriter whose post was published on this blog in exchange for exposure. Lo and behold, it generated a speaking opportunity in front of the writer's target market -- something he couldn't have predicted and perhaps wouldn't even have thought of pursuing.
My inbox is also full of "opportunities" (i.e. requests) for me to contribute an article or speak to a group that has no budget to pay for my time or my content. That is very common these days. And with each case, I have to weigh all the factors: the potential visibility, the time it will take, the travel -- all in the context of my goals and what's on my plate at the moment.
Sometimes I decide to do it and other times I don't. But when I do, I always negotiate a fair exchange so that I benefit, even if no money changes hands.
So I'm not advocating working "for free" -- but I am encouraging all of us to think bigger about what we want and what we can get in exchange for our time and effort.