How can I stop people asking me for unpaid work?


Reader: Post-retirement, I began volunteering for a nonprofit while finishing a master’s degree in a related field. I loved the organization and volunteered in multiple aspects of their service offerings, learning about the work to make my employment prospects better once I finished my degree program. The work fills me with satisfaction.

When I finished my degree, the organization asked me to join the staff as a contract worker, paid per project in reimbursements that seemed reasonable to me. I am paid out of different budgets managed by individuals I have volunteered with.

My quandary is that I am frequently asked by both volunteer leaders and staff to do certain things I did when I was a volunteer, with the expectation that I will still do so unpaid. When I explain my new role, folks are put off, confused, frustrated that my efforts might subtract from their budgets; or they continue to push for my free labor.

I am three months into the new arrangement, and nobody can offer me guidelines for how to handle this. The senior boss made a brief announcement to clarify at a staff meeting. A few people have thrown some great projects my way, paying me promptly. But others continue to ask if I am available “without my new professional title.” My line-drawing is becoming awkward, and these are people I have volunteered with for years. Thoughts? Advice?

Karla: I can offer you endless variations on “My role here has changed and so I’m only doing paid contract work now,” but that wouldn’t solve the problem of people refusing to understand you.

To be fair, you may need to set some firmer boundaries in your own mind before you can expect others to respect them. You say the organization asked you to “join the staff as a contract worker.” But there is no such role. Either you have joined the staff — a full employee with all the rights, benefits and obligations thereunto, including performing extra tasks with no extra pay — or you are a contract worker, paid by the project.

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I understand this is an organization you “love,” with work that is fulfilling. But you presumably don’t give even the humans you love unlimited access to your time, money and energy.

Maybe you feel obligated because this organization gave you the opportunity to learn about their work while you were earning your degree. Counterpoint: You essentially prepaid them in free labor for the opportunity to shape yourself into their ideal job candidate. And I’m willing to bet your fees are still a bargain compared to an equally experienced vendor’s.

It may feel like you’re suddenly leaving people who depended on you high and dry. But that’s an occupational hazard for organizations that rely on donations and volunteers: When volunteer labor falls short, they have to decide how to stretch their limited dollars to get the essential work done that no one is available or willing to do free. Of course, volunteer labor is still needed and welcome, which may be why the people in charge aren’t drawing a bolder line against the people badgering you.

Perspective: Is it legal to lay off a part-timer, then bring her back as an unpaid volunteer?

Even if you would happily keep doing the work for nothing, think of it this way: By diverting time and energy to unpaid work, you’re doing a disservice to the people who value your work enough to pay for it. They deserve their money’s worth. That sense of obligation should make it easier for you to decline with, “I wish I could, but I’m under contract to complete a project for [paying co-worker]’s group.” Eventually, they’ll realize the key to getting on your to-do list is paying you for your time.

If the paid projects you’re taking on for this organization leave you with enough free time that you feel guilty turning down volunteer requests, you could always fill that time with paid contract work for other organizations. Or not. The point is, you’ve more than earned the right to spend your time as you choose.

Let me share an anecdote that might help clarify things further. After receiving a year of Disney Plus streaming video free of charge, I was notified that I had to start paying for the service if I wanted to continue using it. No amount of anger, frustration or pleading “It’s for the kids” would make a difference, so I made space in my budget for it.

Start thinking of yourself as a service provider. Even though you’re retired, and even though you previously supported this worthy organization free of charge, the terms of your deal have changed. To put it in words that any reasonable person would understand: The free trial has ended.

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