I volunteered to produce an app for a non-profit for free. Before beginning the project, I researched already existing solutions. I am in the process of writing an email to summarise my findings. One of the already existing solutions is quite polished.

I want them to be aware that if that decide to get me to produce an app, it mightn't be quite as polished. This wouldn't be because I'm not capable of it, but rather because it wouldn't be worth my time. I mean, polishing an app takes a large amount of time after its already perfectly functional and user friendly. I want them to be aware of all advantages and disadvantages of me building them an app, including this one.

How can I communicate this clearly and professionally?

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    You may be interested in "Working for Free" at Programmers SE. Aug 3, 2012 at 8:44
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    I don't understand "all advantages and disadvantages of me building them an app". If I were the non-profit, I would only see advantages. If after your slaving the app is not suitable, I could just do what I would have done if you had not built the app. Where is the disadvantage?
    – emory
    Aug 3, 2012 at 15:25
  • @emory: There is an already existing app that is close to requirements, but perhaps not close enough
    – Anon
    Aug 4, 2012 at 1:15
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    @Casebash OK. So the advantages are minimal. The disadvantages are still nonexistant. So as the director of the nonprofit I say if you want to waste your time on a project that probably won't benefit me that much but has a small chance of making my life easier and will certainly cost me nothing, rock on!
    – emory
    Aug 4, 2012 at 1:54

6 Answers 6


I'd agree with Jarrod that you shouldn't work for free - if there are no consequences to asking you to put in more time, they will always ask you to put in more time. So, a discounted rate would be more appropriate, but it's all water under the bridge.

That said, when you've agreed to do a project, regardless of what you're being paid or not paid, let the customer know what to expect and when. Be up front about not planning on making it pretty. You've allocated a certain amount of time and I would suggest that you let them decide whether they want all the functionality you're proposing or if they want less functionality and more polish. I suspect they will opt for functionality (and later ask you or someone else to polish it).

It's even possible that if you give them an option of "more polished" at a specific hourly rate, they will choose to pay you instead of getting "less polished" for free.

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    Related to your first point, keeping this a paid relationship keeps you both on the same track; you get that they're paying you so you have reason to do well, they're paying you so they have reason to expect you to get things done with a (hopefully) reasonable quality. If no one's paying it's so much harder to take each other, or the work, seriously.
    – Rarity
    Aug 3, 2012 at 15:10

Never Work For Free!

Harlan Ellison explains it best; Never work for free! (some NSFW language), not even for non-profits, they are non-profits but they don't get electricity for free, their president doesn't work for free, none of their employees work for free, the cleaning staff don't work for free, etc.

Non-profit means they aren't in business to make a profit, but they do make money and they do have money to spend, how else would they be non-profit if they didn't spend what they took in?

In the USA, you can't take off free work for a non-profit on taxes either. It is a lose-lose situation. You lose your peers lose, and you dilute the value of the market for your peers! Never work for free!

They will take advantage of you, you will eventually realized you have lost thousands of dollars and quit, and they will find some other sucker and use you as an example of so and so did all this for free, you should take it up and continue working on it for free. Like I said, everyone loses, even the non-profit; because they get what they paid for, no one will really put any priority on something they are working on for free.

There is extensive discussion about this on programmers.stackexchange.com and really old questions ( that are off topic now that Programmers exists ) on Stack Overflow. Look there you will see the same answers by everyone.

Not working for free doesn't exclude you from not making a profit, it just excludes you from not charging something ( at least going rates ) to at least to break even.

But I think you already have decided on this "... because it wouldn't be worth my time ..." is in your question.

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    Who paid you for writing this answer? StackExchange, Casebash, or a 3rd party? How much? Obviously you did not write it for free.
    – emory
    Aug 4, 2012 at 22:08
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    @emory who says that I consider my contributions to the stackexchange sites "work" or that I am not indirectly compensated in some fashion?
    – user718
    Aug 4, 2012 at 22:14
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    @emory On StackExchange, reputation points are how you're paid. In my niche field of software development, when a fellow developer saw that I'd gotten over 500, he introduced himself to me at a conference. This has already led to a speaking engagement at a local user group and will likely lead further to speaking at a national conference next year. Apr 5, 2013 at 13:47

If an app exists in the Market that does what they need Either: A) Recommend they purchase THAT app B) Purchase the App our self and Donate it to the Org

Building it will cost YOU more than what they (or you) would spend on the app.m Plus they would get a better App with better support.

(I completely disagree with above sentiments to never work for free.)


  • A similar app exists, but it doesn't perfectly suit their needs. That said, there are some advantages of having an app somebody else built, so I'll let them make the choice
    – Anon
    Aug 3, 2012 at 13:51
  • I love the chart... though I would check yes on the prostitute question... I have always wanted to be used for my mind :p Aug 3, 2012 at 15:48
  • I updated the chart's URL to the HTML/CSS site because it's generally easier to use/better attribution. Also note the chart still has you not working for free like 95% of the time :P
    – Rarity
    Aug 6, 2012 at 16:14

When I do projects for friends/family/organizations I let them know up front what I will provide, and what my offer does not include. I will write up a document that itemizes the deliverables I intend to provide. I also try to itemize those things commonly asked for that are not included. These include ongoing support, maintenance, changes, and new functionality. I usually include an hourly rate that I am willing to perform these functions for. I also enumerate how these ongoing activities must be requested.

I am on the do not work for free bandwagon. That does not mean that you need to make income. A small fee that the group commits to paying helps ensure that your efforts are not discarded after you complete them. You can always donate the fee back to the group afterward. The same goes for ongoing changes. Let them commit to paying for the service you provide to protect yourself from having your generosity abused.


Non-profits tend to pay contractors MORE than similarly-sized for-profit organizations. After all, at a for-profit place, the money they pay you hurts them in the end. At a non-profit, the money they pay you can't exist in their accounts in the end. Thus, non-profits tend to invest heavily in their people, sending them to trainings/conventions/etc and putting huge upgrades into their office space. Contractors can make out quite nicely, if they can deliver a good product.

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    Really? I've never seen a non-profit that paid higher than the going rate, but all the ones I dealt with were directly providing services to people. Perhaps the ones you've dealt with were broader in scope? Aug 3, 2012 at 15:16
  • large for-profits will almost always win out over smaller non-profs, but in general non-profs (at least well-run ones) need ways to throw money at things. they invest much more heavily in certain ways, because at the end of the fiscal year, they should not have any profit on the books. a successful non-prof can 'make' just as much money as a for-prof, BUT the difference is that all that money goes back into the employees/office.
    – acolyte
    Aug 3, 2012 at 15:31
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    @Jim Also, thanks for the capitalization edit. I'm so used to forums that don't care, I tend to forget at times.
    – acolyte
    Aug 3, 2012 at 15:32
  • this is about as backwards as it can get from my experience. Every time I get offered work from a non-profit, the first thing they say is You know we are a non-profit right? Which is a code phrase for We don't pay going rates. And a friend of mine and a relative work for one of the largest non-profits in the world, something that had to do with Blood if you get my meaning, they treated employees like cattle, there was no training, they had decades only equipment, chairs and desks from the 50s. And they paid about 25% below market value for our city.
    – user718
    Aug 7, 2012 at 6:20
  • @JarrodRoberson The reputation of that particular non-profit is miserable among those who have worked for them or know those who do. The management culture is to blame. I've never done any work for them, but I know the reputation. Apr 5, 2013 at 13:50

There is absolutely nothing wrong with working for free if you want to help out an organization you believe in. You should however keep track of your hours and expenses. The expenses are tax-deductable if the org has 501c3 status and you get a tax receipt from them (assuming USA here).

In general, the org should know the actual value of what they are receiving. It is good for them because it can help them to get matching contributions. It might be good for you as well if subsequent work you do for this non-profit can be paid for by a sponsor (and that might be tax-deductable for sponsor, I think).

As for expectations, why should it be different than work for any other client? Agree to expectations (timeline, deliverables, etc) in advance and do your best to stick to the agreement. It really is no different.

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