Credit: Photo by NoWah Bartscher on Unsplash

As a freelancer offering consultancy work, it is beneficial to regularly touch base with people in your industry. This will help you make new contacts, learn about the new developments in your sector, and understand better how you can add value.

Setting up an 'exploratory call' is also a normal step before starting to work with a new client, and this is generally non-billable work. But there is a fine line between a simple chat or scoping out a possible project, and being asked to give away your expertise for free - and it is not always easy to spot when that line is being blurred.

"Learning to say 'no' to unpaid work, or asking for a specific fee, isn't just important at an individual level. It's important to maintain the value of journalism," says Corinne Podger, an independent consultant who runs the Digital Skills Agency. Keeping this in mind can help you be firmer in asserting your own boundaries.

Plan it in

If you are self-employed, you will already be scheduling time for non-billable work. Podger says this accounts for around 20 per cent of her total work time, and advises freelance consultants to budget some of that time explicitly for unpaid networking and exploratory calls.

Keep to that limit as closely as possible and ensure you have taken this time into account when setting your rates and schedules for paying clients. This protects your business.

Having clear limits also provides you with a handy script for turning down unpaid work when you need to.

Isabelle Roughol, an editor and producer who does consulting work, says that telling new clients she is booked up for pro bono work or calls, and inviting them to schedule a meeting the following month, helps to "weed out the less serious asks".

Know your priorities

Always consider your personal bandwidth and professional priorities when deciding how you will divide your time. Are you a new freelancer who could benefit from new contacts? Interested in mentoring younger peers? Willing to offer pro bono work to certain causes which cannot afford your usual rates?

Consider how much time you have, who is asking, and the nature of the work itself; whether it is in line with what you want to be doing more of and where your specific expertise lies.

"There's a bigger issue here about putting work into figuring out what you [can offer], the work you do best. When you go freelance, this is the most complex area you'll be dealing with actually - we all underestimate how difficult it is and how much time it takes," explains strategic advisor Lucy Küng.

Rather than seeing unpaid calls themselves as threatening your productivity or business viability, the real issue may be more existential: understanding your own business or what Küng calls "productising" your work.

READ ALSO: What journalists need to know about product thinking in 2022

"It's embedded in the bigger issue of working out what you want to offer, how you're going to add value, who your ideal clients are. If you're clear on that from the outset you can assess these requests against that framework."

She recommends finding communities or support groups of fellow freelancers (formal or informal) where you can share ideas, challenges and possible solutions.

Manager mindset

Having established what kind of work you are prepared to do, and how much time you can spend on non-paying opportunities, the next step is to be firm on protecting those boundaries.

Podger notes that as a self-employed person, you are not only your own manager but also your own employee. So taking on unpaid work, consider the impact this would have on your business, and ask yourself whether your 'employee' will be able to handle the extra workload.

"I have found it is helpful, when making a decision about whether to charge for a booking, and what to charge, to try both these hats on in turn, and 'feel' the impacts of the decision from these two different perspectives."

This slightly detached perspective could help newer freelancers in particular feel more confident about turning down those not-quite-right projects.

Value-added service

Sometimes, clients ask for a follow-up meeting after a project. In those instances, it is hard to justify billing for this time, says freelancer Steve Garnsey.

There are upsides to obliging this request; from landing repeat projects and referrals from the client, gaining testimonials and reflecting on the project itself and improving your work.

"That can lead to having to justify your approach or decisions, resulting perhaps in a rethink or confirmation of how you do things. That's good for continued professional development (CPD)," he says, adding that he caps these meetings to 30 minutes and ensures that all feedback is constructive.

"A bonus from those calls is that it proves my work is valued and probably makes my contract with the company all the more secure, something not to be sniffed at as a freelancer. So a bit of 'free' work for a client does not go amiss in such circumstances. It’s a price worth paying."

However, Garnsey warns that it is part of the territory for clients to ask for more than they are paying for, such as expecting you to be available for (unpaid) phone calls or extra advice beyond fixed-hours jobs - shrinking your effective hourly rate.

"The best defence against that is to be as accurate as possible with your time estimate, be clear what the brief is, stick to it and gently remind the client of it when necessary. But that’s easier said than done in the real world."

Communicate the value of your time

While Küng says she is generally happy to take a call if it is relevant to her areas of focus, she stresses the difficulty of giving meaningful advice in a short phone or video call.

"Don't get sucked into detailed project feedback on the hoof. That requires deeper conversations - it is very hard to give quick advice well, because you need to know a lot about the context and their goals."

If it becomes clear that this is what the other person is looking for, it is important to explain that this would need a longer conversation and more structured input - then see if they are interested in setting up a formal engagement.

Of course, there may still be situations where you choose to offer your work pro bono to support an organisation or individual.

A top tip from Roughol is to send a zeroed-out invoice if you waive your fee or offer a discount: "It’ll drive home the value of what you do, and depending on your jurisdiction, can be helpful with accounting and taxes."

Any advice we missed? What do you recommend? Let us know

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