Why ‘Free Milk’ Does You No Favors

2010 March 24

Hate To Break It To You is a recurring feature wherein we dispense succinct home truths that everyone could benefit from facing up to, unpleasant as they may be.

“Karma is not currency. You can’t pay your rent with unicorns and goodwill.”

-Moi, in conversation with a friend

Wanting to do positive, meaningful work and wanting to get paid a wage that adequately compensates you for your time and skills are not mutually exclusive. I see this attitude a lot, especially in the not-for-profit sector, or among people with a well-developed (over-developed?) social conscience and among organizations that are only too willing to capitalize on idealism as a means of keeping staff costs low. There’s the idea that being concerned with your pay check is at odds with wanting to do good in the world. Not true. Not wanting to work for a pittance doesn’t make you craven or lessen your commitment to a given cause, it simply means that you have respect for the experience, skills and aptitudes that you have invested considerable time and money to build up and that you expect others to demonstrate respect for them by assigning them a reasonable value.

Photo by bluemoose

Sure, there are times when you’ll work for less than what you’re worth – when you’re just starting out in your career, when an opportunity comes along that is too good to pass up for other reasons (exposure, advancement, a foot in the door in your dream field, etc.), when you have another source of income to supplement your pseudo pro bono efforts or when the need to pay your bills ASAP takes precedence over everything. But these are (ideally) temporary situations and shouldn’t form the basis of your work philosophy. There are also times when, based on your chosen career, you’ll earn less than is comfortable due to a scarcity of work or clients (i.e., actors, musicians, working artists), but I suspect most of these folks realize all too well that giving it away for free or at less than the cost of the materials it took to knit that sweater or the gas it took to get to the gig is a foolhardy approach.

Like it or not, cold hard cash is the method by which we assign and reward value in our society. It would be just peachy if we paid everyone in high-fives and root beer floats, but that’s not the way of the world and refusing to acknowledge this reality isn’t taking a principled stand as much as it reads as a display of vulnerability in the eyes of those who hold the purse strings. You’re demonstrating that A) you don’t know how to properly evaluate and price your skill set (a sign of naivete or inexperience) or B) that you can be had for cheap by appealing to your moral conscience. In either case, the other party has an advantage over you and you’ve just willingly committed to an unequal exchange of your services for their compensation. While this may not bother you at the time and, heck, it may not even bother you years down the road, keep in mind that in terms of $, you really are worth more. Realizing this and wanting to capitalize on it (even as you figure out how to save the world) doesn’t make you a bad person or a greedy sell-out.

And you can take that to the bank.

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