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How (not) to ask agencies for free work

It’s bound to happen. You have a great idea for a campaign, and no budget to pull it off. Or maybe you run a nonprofit and need to raise money, but don’t have the resources to make that happen.

Whatever the reason, there often comes a time when you need to ask your agency to do something for free. We’ve been on the other side of that, and have developed a few do’s and don’ts that may help you in your quest for free or discounted services.

What to do:

  1. Be clear in the request. Map out as much as you know, and indicate what you don’t know (and how you’d like to figure that out). Do you have a detailed project scope? Are you looking for help with a certain part (say just design, or just programming)?
  2. Know what your team can offer. There’s your team’s capabilities, and there is also their availability. If you’re already stretched thin and looking for additional free support, knowing what’s reasonable to ask of your current team helps everyone. For instance, if you have an in-house writer who is swamped with grant requests, offering that they can write campaign or web content slows down the communication process and won’t yield results.
  3. Understand time constraints. Ever hear the saying that you can pick two: fast, cheap, or good? In this case you’re already picking cheap, so if you want it to be good it might not be fast. Understand what you can work with and what your limitations are, and ask the agency to do the same. If you need something done for free in a week, save everyone the time with that upfront request. If you need a larger project or more senior people, but the work can be done in an agency’s downtime, the request may not be rejected if you’re willing to sacrifice a deadline.
  4. Know what you can pay, if you can pay anything. If you do have a budget, even a limited one, being upfront with that is a good practice. Sometimes just the act of appreciating the professionals enough to pay them something can make a difference. If you have a grant that can pay for one portion, and you’re looking for someone to round it out with donated services, that’s a more complete package for an agency to evaluate.
  5. Know your audience. If this is a passion project for the designer, or the agency owner, and you know you have a good fit, all the better! Knowing what types of groups they work with and what excites them increases your chances of success. Recognize that just because a freelancer or agency does donate services doesn’t mean that they will for you. They might be booked or have reached their limit for pro bono work.

What not to do:

  1. Promise future work that isn’t there. Sometimes this is done with the best of intentions, but the promise of future work isn’t enough for an established agency to take something on. Odds are if the agency is good, they’re already fairly busy. If there really is a future project, then be clear about this as an initial spec work or sample and have info available on what that future project (scope and budget) is. This could be especially important for freelancers or students looking to build a portfolio. 
  2. Get angry. Sad we have to say this, but telling anyone that you’ll say bad things about them (on social, blog, etc.) if they don’t do something for you is never great. Let’s try to keep the world as positive a place as we can. Plus it’s a big red flag and then some for anyone you’re reaching out to. There might be a future opportunity still there, which leads me to…
  3. Be insistent or impatient. If it’s not a good fit, it’s too bad, but following up too many times isn’t likely to help. Ask if they can refer you to anyone else, or if there is a time in their yearly schedule when they might be able to accommodate your request. Showing that you get it can leave the door open to future opportunities. We’ve matched requests we couldn’t accommodate with skilled interns with good results for both parties! 

It’s not always fun to ask for free or discounted services, and it doesn’t always deliver the results you’re looking for. But having a few tips and tricks can definitely increase the chances of a good outcome for both your project and a future client/vendor relationship.

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