Why You Should Say No to Unpaid Work–and How to Do It

You have value. Don't give it away.

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Recently, I was approached to speak to an organization. They claimed they had no budget to pay me. But they planned to charge their membership to hear me speak. I bring value when I speak to any organization. I deserve to be paid for it. I would not let him devalue my expertise. I declined the offer.

I have a law degree, a Master’s Degree, and a Ph.D. Yet organizations constantly ask me to speak for free. “It’s great visibility,” they say. “Our audiences are engaged and you will find it to be a fun and rewarding evening,” they promise. Fellow academics would tell me that I had joined a community that valued knowledge for knowledge’s sake and that I should be grateful every time I had the chance to share it with the world. For many years, I accepted these invitations without question. I should have asked earlier.

Academics, and particularly women, repeatedly fall into this trap. Writers do too. And we will continue to be asked — nay, expected — to do unpaid labor until all of us demand to be paid for the value we provide. Organizations pay for expertise in any other field. They recognize that public speaking, presentation, curricular development, data analysis, writing, editing, teaching, and training skills, as well as deep expertise in a topic, are valuable business skills. They are the product of years of training and experience and should be — and are, in most industries — compensated accordingly. It’s time that academics — and women and others who have learned these skills in other areas of life — demand appropriate compensation for their work.

Another trap is a request to “pick your brain.” Academics are particularly susceptible to this. Students pick our brains for a living — but we are paid a salary for that. If others pick our brains for free, we are devaluing that expertise — and the value of our students’ tuition. Set a limit on the amount of time you’re willing to share your expertise for free. Don’t waste your time writing long emails. Let them set a formal, free consultation with you in order to do that. After that, charge the brain-picker.

Many women have reported to me that they accept such engagements because they’re afraid to say no. They don’t want to say no to friends and contacts who invite them to participate. And they don’t want to say no to organizations they might want to work with in the future. This is a mistake. If organizations know that you will work for free, they have no incentive to pay you in the future, or to pay you far less than your value. Set your boundaries kindly firmly up front. If you do so, these organizations will come back to you for mutually beneficial work in the future.

Here are a few ways to say no effectively, or to continue the conversation in order to negotiate for payment. I’ve learned these from experience and from conversations with others. The key to all of them: let the organizations know you will not work for free — and leave the door open to future collaboration if they can pay you in the future.

  1. Thank you for this opportunity. I am not able to take on any unpaid projects at this time. If your budget for this project changes, please do get back in touch. I hope to have the opportunity to collaborate with you in the future.
  2. Thank you very much for considering me for this opportunity. To clarify, are you charging for this event? Other organizations generally offer me a percentage of their proceeds. [Or, name the percentage. I was recently offered 50% of the proceeds from an organization’s online course.]
  3. Thank you for reaching out. I am excited by the prospect of working with your organization. Please see here for a link to the services and price packages that I offer. Please let me know if you have any questions.
  4. Thank you for your email. This looks like a great opportunity. I typically charge $XX for such engagements. Please let me know if you would like to discuss.
  5. This sounds like a fantastic opportunity. Thank you for thinking of me. Are you able to confirm that this is a paid opportunity?
  6. Thank you for reaching out. I would be delighted to work with your organization. Will an honorarium be offered for this event?
  7. Thank you for this wonderful opportunity. I typically charge a flat fee for this kind of advice so I’m unable to answer this via a comment on LinkedIn (or DM, etc.). Please go to this link, where you can book a free, half-hour consultation with me. I look forward to speaking with you!
  8. Thanks for reaching out. Out of respect for my paying clients, I’m unable to answer detailed questions via DM. Please go to this link, where you can see a menu of my services. I think the best fit would be XX. If you’d like to book a time to discuss, please visit my website here.

These tactics will only work if we all use them. Academics and freelancers don’t have a union to establish such practices. But together we can set norms that will help each other be compensated for the value we provide. Let’s do it!

Jill Goldenziel is a Professor at Marine Corps University-Command and Staff College, a Public Speaker, Consultant, and Arbitrator. Learn more about her services at Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @JillGoldenziel.

The author’s views do not represent those of her University or any other arm of the U.S. Government.

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