Give it away now!

I get asked a lot to do many things for free. All the time. And I find I sit in a tension between advocacy for the content of the work – give that away to promote the work – AND that my work is a service process that I earn a living from.

So people ask for me to help put together events, curate things, or advise on their projects. But I also make a living facilitating events, curating and managing projects, and consulting. So when do I say yes to the free services they ask me for and when do I say, “yes, and that costs money.”

I can sense by gut when the opportunity doesn’t seem to be reciprocal. But describing that sense of reciprocal benefit in terms that can become principles for consistent action…that seems more tricky. How do you manage it?

Creative Commons License photo credit: askingdave

Is it worth it to do for free?


  • A major conference in one of my fields has historically given me a free pass to be an energizing presence in the space. They aren’t asking me to run the event. I get to do my thing. And they get the benefit of my more subtle forms of facilitating – network weaving, curiosity infusions, etc.
    That exchange seemed worth it to me. This year the benefits are not clear or pressing enough to them.
  • A conference in one of my fields – but directed more toward specialists – asks me to be on an organizing committee for 9 months. To even attend the event I will spend a thousand dollars on airfare – not to mention numerous hours of pre-event meetings. I might increase visibility of my work, but not to a broad audience. That didn’t seem worth it. They aren’t offering money and the visibility gained isn’t ideal. I might learn some, and I already have enough social contacts in that arena for my needs.
  • An innovation event raising money to do the event via crowdfunding asks me about curating some of the event. Hmmm, the right kind of audience. And, if this was not my content audience, I would be charging at least $3000 for design, coordination, and production. I will have to think about this. It would have to make my organization visible to the tune of a $4000 sponsorship in lieu of fees, I think. At least for my effort at this time and not living in the location of the event.


  • Someone designing a values-driven community asks to pick my brain for an hour. It actually takes about 3 hours between the email and follow up, the scanning of documents to offer useful feedback, and then the actual conversation. They are not likely to be paying for consulting later. Benefits: continue building reputation as someone who can think through the complexity of a social ecosystem and flow dynamics. Yes. Good. And costs: my time and energy aren’t being valued with anything but gratitude. I am not getting visibility, social contacts, nor learning. I have historically just done this sort of thing for the sector. Over and over. I am starting to feel like setting the limit at 1 hour is not enough. I should restrict these freebies to 30 minutes or just publish a guide of questions for a reasonable fee. Anything of my time over that needs to be an hourly rate through the Agency.
  •  Someone calls needing to make a decision on a potential partnership or collaboration. We talk for 45 minutes. I ask questions. We clarify. A decision is made. We could call this social capital building. And you might say that if the person had to pay they would simply skip the counseling. However, I am failing to use the social capital I built with them before it starts depleting (passage of time – these things don’t hold value indefinitely). I need to start making it clear that I charge for this. That will show up over at the Agency in the next month too.
  • I am on the board for a project and the collaborators on that project have a massive meltdown. I mediate over the course of two weeks to get them to a clear outcome, agreed process, and personal development for all sides toward positive feelings and “ownership” aka responsibility all around.  Of course this is free – I might not be on the board to serve that purpose expressly, but I am happy to give my time to them. However, I ought to also be more clear about providing this kind of mediation as a service. That is definitely invisible to the market. Again, that will be showing up in the Agency in the next month.

How do you decide what to give away? When is it worth it? How do you do your cross-capital forms accounting?