How to get and accept free work without destroying your friendship

My aunt was getting married, and was lamenting about the cost of wedding cakes. A sister-in-law offered to make a wedding cake for her, and although she wasn’t a professional, my aunt let her because a) she needed a cake and b) she wanted to create good will with the new sister-in-law.

You can imagine what happened; the cake looked and tasted totally horrible. I remember it as a cake mix cake in the shape of big peach-colored blob. We all held our tongues but it was an embarrassing situation. (If you know me you might be asking, “Charlene, why didn’t YOU make the cake, you love baking!” thereby alleviating possibility for embarrassment but I was flying in for the wedding and wouldn’t have had enough time to get supplies and bake it).

Accepting the ramifications of giving things for free makes things sticky within families, but this happens in business too.  Someone offers to do something (create a flier, make a website, write some copy) for free for you. You are in a pinch so you accept their kind offer. But if they do it badly, or want some changes, now you are in a pickle.

Some sticky situations that can arise when you let someone do free work for you:

  • since you aren’t paying money, you don’t feel free to ask for exactly what you want, or make changes
  • the person offering the free service feels ownership because they gave it to you for free
  • if you don’t like what they did it might damage the friendship to say so
  • the person doing the free work might hold onto control or access to the work so it’s difficult to have someone else take over (i.e. fix it)

I’ve run into several situations where my client had had a website built by a family member or a friend, and that person was hosting the website on their personal server, and was hesitant to give up control of it.

Here are some ways you can work with friends/acquaintances for free and still stay friends:

  • Do some sort of exchange.
    You are providing a service, and should be paid for it, even if it’s in a different currency than money. Also, the other person deserves to get what they want out of the deal, and that is facilitated by the exchange of goods or services. If you both are in service industries, offer to swap services. I did some website work for a friend who paid me in custom essential oils, and I’ve also done work for art.
  • Swap money, even if it’s the exact same amount.
    An associate tells me if he works with friends, he trades money. He gives his friend $100, and the friend gives HIM $100. In the end it’s a wash, but just by exchanging the money, the arrangement is validated.
  • Agree on custody.
    Agree that after the work is done, the originals will be given to the person they were designed for. You don’t want to get into a custody battle if (god forbid) something happens with the friendship. If you do a flier, hand over the original file. If you work on a website (or someone builds one for you), don’t host it on a personal site – and make sure the person who “owns” the site has access to it to make future changes.

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