On working for free

Nico Macdonald
4 min readMay 6, 2021

We seem to live in a culture in which many organisations (and some people) think others should do work for them for nothing, on the basis of some possible, unstated future benefit. (I’m not just thinking internships.) And maybe many people can work sans remuneration. But not me.

My Tweet which inspired this piece

Over the last decade, perhaps longer, I have been increasingly aware of how many organisations essentially ask people (including me) to do work for free. In my case this might include writing, speaking or lecturing, contributing to a project or doing research, or delivering an event. Or they may just expect such work to be done at some ridiculously low cost which may be barely worth invoicing.

Of course, I do ask people to do work for no fee, perhaps speaking at an event, introducing a book, writing a contribution to a publication, or speaking to my students. In many scenarios I am not getting paid myself — for better or worse! And where I am, I do my best to make clear what the value will be for the person participating, not imply there will be unlikely future benefit may be forthcoming. I also treat such people seriously and brief them properly; do my best to promote their contribution; and follow up with thanks, introductions, and documentation. But where I can, I will get clients to budget to pay fees for speakers and lecturers — even if they would work for no fee — as I did with the BBC and our Media Futures events, and do with my teaching.

What is going on?

To the extent this is a ‘thing’, why is it? I have observed a few trends:

  1. This may be a function in part of how digital communication technologies have made it easy it is to make such requests, receive contributions, and engage people.
  2. I sense it is also a function of a diminished connection between work and income, which mirrors our society’s broader disconnection of wealth from industry. (This has likely been exacerbated by the huge fruits of the Magic Money Tree state has distributed in furlough and other payments to locked down workers and businesses.)
  3. There is a sense abroad that everything is in some way subsidised by something else: charities are funded by donations; not-for-profits are funded by grants; government agencies are funded by the Treasury (well, us, really); and social enterprises are funded by, er, goodwill. Nothing is paid for at the point of consumption, a bit like the National Health Service.
  4. There appears to have been a huge increase in voluntarism, with people volunteering their time and skills informally and to organisations — from local clean-ups to National Trust to Covid testing centres — in part I suspect as a way of creating meaning they don’t get from increasingly bureaucratised work and, more prosaically, as a way of socialising and meeting people.
  5. I sense there are many people who either have some independent funding — not just those young people doing internships supported by Dad and/or Mum — or who have significant ‘free’ unremunerated time — due to under-earning? — or, and this would be the best case, do this work on top of full-time employment.
  6. It also seems to be a function of a kind of purposelessness in organisations whose priorities are increasingly divorced from their ostensible purpose and whose deliverables are no longer societally measured. As such, they go through the motions of doing useful work which leads them to wastefully engage others.

On this trend, I am reminded of the Soviet-era joke, “They pretend to pay us, we pretend to work”, except these employees do get paid, often very well, but think that us civilians don’t need to be catered for. I am also reminded of Bullshit Jobs: A Theory by David Graeber, about which I must write about some time. There is also a dimension of the conflict between the (modern concept of) the Professional Managerial Class (PMC) and independents, or between the Clerisy versus the Middle-class (in the US sense) and the Serfs, pace The Coming of Neo-Feudalism: A Warning to the Global Middle Class by Joel Kotkin.

What is the consequence?

Those may be trends and reasons explaining this ‘thing’. Either way, people clearly do agree to work for free.

One of my Dad’s (Gerard Macdonald) observations about the people who request free work was that they tend to put the least effort into making the most of one’s contribution — because they, or their organisation, have not invested in it — which makes it the most frustrating and least rewarding.

Apart from being a non-viable way of earning a living, there are wider repercussions to the market essentially being removed from work and employment. Where there is no mechanism for ascribing value to asking someone to do work, then quality suffers. And the creation of poor quality things short-changes the rest of us.

For instance, in the world of events and podcasts, it now costs almost nothing to host and engage people in an event. Back when I first started hosting events in the early ’90s, it would cost hundreds, 1,000s, or 10s of 1,000s of pounds to host an a talk or a conference. Thus we have a proliferation of events that are typically poorly programmed, poorly prepared for, poorly documented, and which, ultimately, are wasteful of our time.

Much better would be to do less, with more quality, for which people would get paid more — and certainly more than nothing.

Video and Audio

[To come]


This relates to my 2017 Facebook post On self-employment and getting paid on the challenge for independents getting paid by large organisations.

[Posted on Facebook] [Source]

Originally published at http://www.spy.co.uk on May 6, 2021.



Nico Macdonald

Educator, facilitator and consultant on innovation and creativity. Tutor @CIEELondon @LSBU_ACI / External Examiner @CSM_news. BIG POTATOES manifesto co-author