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Me, Work for Free at This Point in My Career?

A former public radio host struggles with the notion that accepting unpaid assignments will lead to more lucrative work

By Tess Vigeland | October 3, 2013
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Tess Vigeland is a veteran journalist and a well-known voice to millions of American radio listeners. Until November 2012, Vigeland was the host of Marketplace Money, a weekly personal finance program syndicated by American Public Media.

As I was writing this article, I thought to myself: If it gets published, I should be paid for it. If not, I’m a sucker.
 
Or am I?
 
Here’s how I wound up on the horns of a dilemma. Last August, I walked away from my job as host of Marketplace Money, the weekly national personal finance radio program syndicated by American Public Media. I was ready to start doing something different, even if I didn’t know exactly what that might be.
 
(MORE: An Ex-Public Radio Host Asks Herself: Now What?)
 
Building My "Brand"

As someone who presumably proved her mettle over 20-plus successful years in broadcasting, I wasn’t prepared to hear that making money was not as important as getting myself “out there” and working for free in order to varnish my “brand.”
 
Here’s a post I recently wrote on Facebook:
 
I said "yes" today to a high-profile opportunity that will require a not-small amount of work and preparation, relies on my public profile and speaking skills and yet will pay me only in kindness. Apparently I learned exactly nothing in six years of hosting a personal finance show.
 
I posted that on a lark. It was a (hopefully) humorous jab at myself, but also sort of a public venting that I should’ve been stronger in my pushback, defiantly, though politely, explaining that my time, effort and experience are valuable and worthy of compensation.
 
The Surprising Reactions to My Decision

I thought any response to the post would be along the lines of “Yeah, Tess, what were you thinking? They’re getting you for free?!” or “Go back and play hardball!”
 
(MORE: The Key to a Successful Career Shift: Asking for Help)

But the reaction from my well-meaning friends (and fans) was eye-opening — and the polar opposite of what I expected — even though many are as far into their careers as I am, at 44.
 
A sampling of comments from those who believe I was right to accept the unpaid assignment:
 
“You will get it back…with dividends.”
 
“You’re building your brand.” (That word again.)
 
“It’s a marketing opportunity.”
 
“It will lead to more opps for you!”
 
Some also talked about the value of volunteering.
 
Payoff From Another Unpaid Speech

I should note that since leaving Marketplace Money, I’ve begun working as an independent writer and producer. And, to be wholly transparent, I should also add that I recently gave an uncompensated speech about my life at a crossroads that went over so well it landed me a generous book deal.
 
Consequently, I now have a budding new identity (okay, brand) tied to the content of that speech. So, yes, there is something to be said for doing whatever it takes to expand my brand and get myself “out there.”
 
But at the same time, I’ve been “out there” for years.
 
I already have a well-known brand, which has lead to opportunities like the one I mentioned in the Facebook post.
 
Why Give Away My Brand for Free?

And so, my dilemma: Professionals want to attract audiences from the brand I’ve built up, but they want me to give it away with no return, except a vague notion that making an appearance will benefit me somewhere down the line.
 
(MORE: Self-Employment: How to Know if You’re Cut Out for It)
 
I understand, somewhat, this kind of thinking for people early in their careers, perhaps right out of school or in their 20s (though the U.S. Supreme Court has declared all work should be paid, even if it's called an internship).
 
I even get it for folks transitioning into new careers that have nothing to do with their previous professions.
 
But if you’ve spent two decades getting really, really good at something, that should be worth more than just goodwill. Right?
 
The New Conventional Wisdom

And yet, it seems to me that a good chunk of our population has bought into this notion that you should work for less than you’re worth — sometimes for free — for the exposure it (might) get you.
 
Follow your passion, proponents say, and the money is sure to follow (after you’ve proven yourself over and over and over again). We’ve heard this mantra so often we’ve absorbed it as conventional wisdom.
 
This notion is, not so coincidentally, of great benefit to corporate America. That’s why writers hear it all the time — hello, Huffington Post! — as do many others in the creative arts.
 
I haven’t even addressed the gender behavior issues that are most certainly at play here. Without placing all blame on my womanhood, dozens of studies have shown that females are, generally speaking, terrible at asking for what they want in the working world — in my case, to get paid fairly for my services.
 
But I think those types of issues are separate from the pervasive undercurrent of if-you-build-it-for-free-they-will-come.
 
The Benefits of Volunteering My Services

I don’t want to sound ungrateful for the opportunity I described in my Facebook post and, upon reflection, I’m glad I said yes. It’s exciting and probably will lead to opportunities in the future.
 
I’ve also donated hundreds, if not thousands, of volunteer hours in my lifetime and am fully aware of the benefits of doing so not only to the causes and organizations, but to my soul.
 
Still, I wonder if we’re sometimes too quick to give ourselves away in service of the future, especially those of us well into our careers.
 
By the way, my favorite reaction to the news that I accepted the free speaking engagement came from a friend in the personal finance world: “This is why God created agents.”
 
That is advice you can take to heart… and to the bank.
 
Postscript: I ended up giving this article away for free. Discuss.