billy joel

By Kerry Gorgone, {grow} Contributing Columnist

A few months back, I read a LinkedIn Influencer post by my  friend Ann Handley about pursuing “passion projects,” and why you should consider lending your professional expertise to a cause you deeply care about. (“Why You Should Work For Free (Sometimes)”)

Her post really inspired me, and I started thinking about ways I could use my skills to benefit causes I’m passionate about, like autism awareness and education reform. But when I looked at my calendar, it was jam-packed. At this point, as C.C. Chapman would say, I’m “juggling chainsaws,” and if something drops, it’s going to hurt.

I have two children, a full-time job teaching a graduate course in new media marketing, produce and host podcasts, create other freelance projects on the side, and write for free for a few more blogs that I love.

Recently, quite a few people have sent me requests to do work for them. Sounds exciting, right? Just what every freelancer hopes for? Yes. Except they don’t intend to pay me anything.

Unfair expectations

I know I’m not alone: several of my friends are very well known in the social space, and they get pitched nonstop. It happens online, in-person at events, pretty much all the time.

A while back, I wrote a post about creepy people and users on social networks. That piece focused on people who wanted to get to me (or go through me) for personal reasons.

Since then, I’ve encountered a whole new class of user: the Time Thief. Maybe it’s unfair to use the term “thief,” but the reality is that I have only 18 or so waking hours in a day, and no, I don’t want to give them away to strangers. (Incidentally, Arianna Huffington would say I need more sleep, and she’s not wrong.)

During those precious hours, I need to grade student projects, respond to questions, prepare for interviews, record and edit podcasts, write blog posts, manage my own household, and raise two boys.

I also travel to quite a few industry conferences, either to speak or to cover the event as press for one of the sites I write for. Should I ever find a minute to sit still, I will realize there are wet towels in the washing machine. I’m grateful for the hustle and bustle. I love my family and I love my work, but there’s not much room for “passion projects” at the moment.

If I can’t find time for passion projects—work that would feed my soul and make the world a better place—I certainly don’t have time to provide free consulting.

It’s not selfish, it’s smart

This may come off as selfish, but every minute I give you is a minute I take away from my children, my students, or my paying work (which I also find personally fulfilling—another reason I do it).

I’ve had a number of strangers contact me to ask for favors. By definition, a “favor” should be reserved for someone I like (or at least know: let’s start there). If I’ve never heard of you, don’t ask me for a favor: establish a relationship with me first.

Relationships don’t start with favors: they start with an introduction. Ann Tran wrote a great post about this in which she likens social media to a cocktail party. Before you ask for free business advice, take Ann’s free advice about cultivating a genuine connection with people online and off.

I’m very approachable. Start a conversation with me at an event or on Twitter. Just don’t end that initial conversation with a request. Wait until we have an actual connection before you pitch me on something.

Once I know who you are and have a sense of what you’re about, if what you want me to do is easy and would mean a lot to you, I may well do it. A quote or a book blurb is no big deal, for instance, provided I like your work once I see it. I don’t mind answering a few questions via email, either.

But please don’t ask me to complete demanding projects—the type I normally get paid for—in exchange for “exposure.” Understand that podcast interviews take me hours to plan, produce and edit, and that writing similarly requires time and concentration.

If I’ve never heard of you or your site, it’s unlikely to offer me the kind of exposure that justifies taking my attention away from my family, my work, or my passion projects (which I might have time for someday, once I master the art of ignoring one-sided pitches entirely).

Everyone has to do some free work when they’re starting out, but the fact you’ve heard of me and think I could do something for you indicates that I already have some exposure, at least within my field.

Except you …

If any of the following applies to you, you CAN ask for favors:

I love you, your project, or your company. For instance, I will support any project C.C. Chapman needs help with, because he’s a long-time friend and I love him.

I share your passion. I can’t stop talking about Mack Collier’s book Think Like a Rock Star because I truly believe in the message (customer appreciation over customer acquisition), and feel sure it will benefit others. If there’s a way I can help Mack get that book into the hands of more marketers, I’m in, no question.

You really can offer valuable exposure. I write for Social Media Explorer (and guest posted for {grow} before I became a paid columnist) because being associated with a site of that caliber is exactly the kind of exposure that’s worthwhile for a blogger/speaker/podcaster like me.

I’m not suggesting that I’m better or more important than anyone else, but if I don’t value my time, who will?

If you value my work enough to ask for a favor, value my time enough not to ask, at least until we have a relationship.
Kerry O’Shea Gorgone teaches New Media Marketing at Full Sail University. She is also hosts the weekly Marketing Smarts podcast for MarketingProfs. Find Kerry on Google+ and Twitter.

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