Easy-To-Use Templates To Say 'No' To Working For Free

When you get yet another request to work for free, it can be tempting to send a two-word email that says, “Hard pass.”

So while I love the quote from writer Anne Lamott, “‘No’ is a complete sentence,” I also know that women can face sanctions when they’re perceived to be self interested or unhelpful (read: not giving away their stuff for free). A more thoughtful response can help avoid triggering that gender bias.

Here are templates I use to make the process of saying 'no' less stressful:

1. Start warmly

I usually begin with something friendly.

Great to hear from you. Thank you for thinking of me for this project.

Then in a sentence or two, I acknowledge something specific to the project that demonstrates this isn’t a form letter.

2. Explain (nicely) that you’re running a business

When you’re not selling a tangible project, friends and strangers may reach out with requests to “pick your brain”, which translate to “have you work for free.” Here’s what I say:

Since [the project] is part of my business model, I'm not able to provide [the work] at no cost. Let me know if you're interested in working on this project as a consulting client, and I can share my rates.

This is slightly more emphatic language than I might otherwise use because I want to make the paid client/consulting relationship crystal clear up front.

3. Offer an alternative

People are coming to you as an expert, so you can generate significant good will by sharing other resources. That way, you’re not just declining the project, but helping steer them in the right direction.

I used to do a lot more work supporting women one-on-one in workplace negotiations, and I still have friends and referrals who reach out for help. Since I’m much more limited in the one-on-one services I provide now, I often share articles I’ve written and links to my e-courses on negotiations.

Here are a few of my favorite resources on the subject:

4. Ask to get paid

If you’re interested in the project, another strategy is to ask whether there’s the potential to get paid for it.

While I’m very interested in the project, unfortunately, I’m not able to take it on pro bono. Would you consider providing an honorarium?

Using the term “pro bono” demonstrates that there’s a clear value for the services you provide.

5. End warmly

Even if I’m going to have nothing to do with it, I like to wish my potential clients well on the project.

I hope your event is a great success.

If you have template language you can adapt to the situation, it expedites the process of saying no and makes it less emotionally draining. I use the Gmail plugin Canned Responses, which allows me to easily populate a new email with the appropriate template. I’ve heard of others using auto-signatures for the same purpose.

Whatever your approach, remember what business coach Christy Wright says in the brilliant 3-minute video How to Say No and Take Back Your Life, “Just because someone needs you does not obligate you."

A version of this piece was originally published by Forbes.