The other day, an acquaintance asked me to take a look at a not–for–profit site and offer some CSS feedback. I'm always willing to offer input and suggestions, but upon taking a look at the site it was entirely unclear to me what input I could offer other than the site needed a major design overhaul.
As it turns out, a design overhaul is exactly what this acquaintance meant by "CSS feedback." He asked if I could create a mock up, taking into account usability, accessibility, readability, etc. … pro bono.
I responded that this was a major request, and not only did I not have time to take on the project, but that I don't do that sort of work for free. But I pointed him in the direction of several design resources he could utilize himself (he has some development experience) and also sent out a request to local web designers who might be willing to do the pro bono work.
Apparently (and unfortunately) he didn't seem to grok the concept that I don't work for free, extending it to mean that I don't support open source or volunteerism.
And while I'm certain he had the best of intentions and wasn't trying to make any personal judgements against me, his sentiment that his "volunteer quest isn't everyone's" got me pretty pissed off.
I'm Not A Charity
I don't work for free. Period.
I'm a professional. I've spent years honing my craft. Spent thousands of dollars on education and conferences to learn more. And I consider my skills and knowledge to be above-average.
That has real value. To ask me to ply my trade for free negates that value.
And it still negates that value if you call it "pro bono," which sounds much nicer and gives people the warm–and–fuzzies. But it is just a euphemism for free work. Yes, usually free work for a charity or non-profit. But free work nonetheless.
Not working for free is a personal choice, based on years of doing free work and paying the personal price for it. But while it is a personal choice, I also discourage other web professionals from doing free work.
I've Learned the Hard Way
When I was starting out as a web designer, I often agreed to do free projects for friends and family, rationalizing that I needed the experience and fodder for my portfolio.
What I ended up getting was frustrated and annoyed at my friends and family. Even though the work was free, they still acted like regular clients: last minute changes, constant design tweaks, unrealistic expectations.
Eventually, I would reach a point of complete apathy about the project. This meant that it no longer reflected the best of what I could do and, as such, wasn't something I even wanted on my portfolio.
And it also meant that I was left resentful towards my friends and family.
Spec Is for Suckers
I've also made the huge mistake of doing work on spec.
Again, as a fledgling web designer, I was ignorant. Wasn't even aware of the negative issues of spec work.
I had just been laid off and was desperate for employment. I got an interview with a company who required that all applicants design a "mini-site" for one of their projects.
So I spent a few days working on this mini-site and presented it to the potential employer. I didn't get the job, but I discovered a few weeks later that they ended up using my design.
And I had no recourse whatsoever.
What's the Big Deal?
My encounter the other day with this acquaintance isn't the first time I've been asked to do work for free. It happens all the time.
There remains a perception outside the web industry that a web site is intangible and, as such, not really a "product." This same ignorance leads many laypeople to also assume that it is easy to "throw a site together."
These perceptions are wrong. Web work should be treated the same as any other professional service or product.
I wouldn't ask a mechanic to fix my car for free, or an accountant to do my taxes for free, or any other professional to offer their services for free. And I don't suspect many other people would.
But the problem goes far beyond these ignorant perceptions.
The True Cost of "Free"
Doing free or pro bono work sounds noble. But it has a huge cost to the web professional and the web industry as a whole.
Personally, my past decisions to do free work skewed my own perception of my professional value. Having given away my skills for free, I subsequently had difficulty assigning a fair monetary value to my services.
This led to me charging ridiculously low rates for paying clients, only to feel that same frustration and eventual apathy I felt when I was doing the work for free. And, frankly, the final product suffered which, in turn, led me to devalue and question my own work and skills.
But beyond the personal cost, free work and unrealistically low rates set an expectation with my clients. They then believed that is what web work is worth. And not only did that mean it was impossible to charge fairer rates in the future for my own work, but it meant that these clients expected similar fees from other web professionals.
Even worse, delivering a product I felt was sub-standard also set my clients' expectations for what a web site should be. And one only needs to peruse the web to see the overwhelming prevalence of crap sites for which clients paid, ignorant that they could have something much better.
But just because I don't do free or pro bono work doesn't mean I don't "give back." And to suggest otherwise, as the aforementioned acquaintance did, offends me to my core.
This industry has been good to me, and I feel a deep responsibility to help this industry — and its professionals — be the best it can.
To that end, I have mentored new professionals, hoping to guide them to reach their fullest potential and deliver their best work. And, on a much smaller scale, I always make myself available to answer questions, offer feedback and do user testing whenever asked.
I also co-manage Webuquerque, a local Adobe User Group, which sponsors free workshops every month.
I participate in Upgrade NM, a "code sprint" project where local web developers and designers volunteer to build web sites for New Mexico non-profits.
And I do my very best to share knowledge freely. I presented at BarCamp Albuquerque 3, and I maintain this blog.
From my perspective, all of those activities are a form of volunteerism.
I can even admit that some of this work, particularly Upgrade NM, could be considered free or pro bono by the strictest definition. But I ultimately disagree on that point.
Doing It for Me
I believe humans are naturally self-interested. In fact, I believe we are biologically required to be self-interested. And I'm not embarrassed to admit that every bit of volunteering I do is driven by my own self interests.
For my work with Upgrade NM, for example, I did get "paid." I got a chance to work collaboratively with other extremely talented web professionals. Telecommuting from my home office can be lonely and uninspiring. Working with others on a project was my payment.
And a bonus motivation was showcasing the web talent available in NM, in hopes of improving the local job market. This, too, was self-interested: If I lost my current job, I would likely be unable to stay in Albuquerque because there just aren't enough good jobs for web professionals. And I love it here.
The "do-gooders" out there may be appalled by this notion of self interest, but I seriously couldn't give a fuck. In fact, I think anyone who likes to tout their good deeds are, in fact, touting themselves. And more power to them. I see nothing wrong with helping other people or communities when the motivation is oneself. Everyone wins in that situation.
Decide for Yourself
While this rant is little more than a justification of my own decisions, I do think that the underlying point about free work is one that should be seriously considered.
Whether you agree with my perspective or not makes little difference to me. Make your own decision based on whatever your own motivation is, but at least be aware of the potential repercussions of offering your skills for free.
And if you are looking for a web professional but don't want to (or, perhaps, can't) pay, consider this: a web professional who is willing to work for free likely doesn't know what they are doing (myself being an example).
A good, in-demand web professional charges for their work because the skills involved are challenging and valuable.
If you want free, remember that you get what you pay for.