How to Persuade People to Work for Free

In the last ten years, I’ve worked for free many times.

“Uh, no shit. It’s called an internship.”

Not so fast. I’m not just talking about internships (though of course, I did those too).

I’m talking about working for free outside the safety umbrella of a university. Without the structure of an internship program. As a grown-ass man with man bills to pay:

  • I worked on sets for indie movies and music videos.
  • I read scripts.
  • I researched for authors.
  • I watched Youtube videos.
  • I did casting.
  • I consulted on marketing plans.

All free work. In rare cases, yeah, it was an absolute waste of time. But in most, it fell somewhere in the spectrum of “best career decision ever” and “glad I did it, but never again.”

What differentiated work from landing on one side of the spectrum versus the other?

Recently I wrote about working in restaurants. And how my best work happened after pre-meal meetings, and I was reminded that “this work is important.”

In this case, rationally I’m aware the better I work, the better my service, the more I’ll make in tips. Logically, I know this… BUT in this case, there’s a second incentive at play here, more powerful than the money.

Which got me thinking about…

The Power of Incentives

Derek Halpern wrote about how persuading others to help you is a matter of incentives. To summarize, it comes down to three incentives:

  • Social – a friend suggested it, referred it, or I get to meet new peopl
  • Moral – I can make the world a better place
  • Economic – money now (or later)

I’m going to give examples of when I was motivated by each of these incentives, but first I think it’s worth pointing out something:

While the Economic incentive is the most obvious, ultimately it provides the least amount of leverage. Because Economic incentive is completely dependent on the exhaustible resource of money.

Social and Moral, while less obvious, have an unlimited amount of leverage because the resource is theoretically non-exhaustible. We only have to look as far as Wikipedia and Reddit to see the leverage Social and Moral incentive brings to the table.

Back to my incentives for working for free:

Social Incentive

Confession: I sorta hate physical labor. And I hate standing in one spot for long periods of time, aka anything longer than 3 minutes. My flat feet start to complain. My hip joints creak.

(Next thing you know I’ll be shaking my cane at you, telling you to get off my lawn.)

So every time I’ve worked on a set, it’s because of Social Incentive. Frankly, you couldn’t afford my services on set —  not because I’m good, but because you’d to pay me a few grand an hour to stand there and hold a boom mic.


If you’re a friend who needs a sound mixer…

Or a friend of a friend who really needs an extra set PA…

Or you were recommended by my favorite podcast host…

Then I’ll stop whining for 18 hours and do the work.

That’s the power of Social incentive.

Moral Incentive

You know, I thought about the last time I did free work purely based on Moral incentive, and I couldn’t think of a single example.

(I mean, pure Moral incentive. Uninfluenced by Economic or Social incentive.)

While I ponder what a horrible person that makes me, check out this John Oliver clip on Net Neutrality. At the 11:20 mark, he uses Moral Incentive to get the trolls and haters of the Internet to do something constructive for the first time in their lives:

Economic Incentive

Since we’re talking about working for free, Economic Incentive — “I do X. In exchange, you pay me Y” — is ruled out… unless we consider it’s distant cousin, Delayed Economic Incentive:

“I do X. In exchange, I hope in the indeterminate future, you (or a third party) will pay me Y.”

(Sure, the distant cousin doesn’t sound compelling when you put it that way… but that’s essentially the contract anyone accepts when they take an internship.)


Our motivation to do work comes down to these three incentives.

I’ve done enough free work to know that Social Incentive and Delayed Economic Incentive are powerful forces (but Moral Incentive, in my case — apparently not so much).

When you’re struggling to make rent, or have to check your bank account before going out for drinks, the lure of Economic incentive is extremely powerful. I know this as well as anyone. But it’s not as all-powerful as we’re tempted to believe… especially when considering the fact that Social and Moral Incentive can create nearly infinite leverage.

Photo Credit: Sila Tiptanatorin

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