When/how to provide your services and expertise for nothing?
The simple answer: when its worth it.
What does that mean?
To me, it means when either the time involved is minimal, or the positives for building and growth far exceed the layout.
Case one happened to me this afternoon.
One of the volunteer ushers at a theater I work at also teaches stage craft at a local, very under funded high school. He popped into the booth while we were waiting for the house to open, in order to ask some questions about gobos (those pattern things that go into lights).
The projections are quite large in this house, due to the size of the throw. He wanted to know how big the patterns themselves were. (About two inches in diameter). He also wanted to know about costs. I gave him some information about making your own safely, that would also be really cheap. He was thrilled, and talked to me about possibly talking to the kids at some point as a guest lecturer.
This was all of five minutes of my time, where I was sitting around chatting with my coworkers anyway. Always worthwhile.
Case two, is much more involved on my end.
I shot, and am in the process of editing, a really nifty music video for a non profit group. (Remember kids! Non profit is a charitable designation, NOT a 'you ain't gettin' paid because our wanna be rap star's mom won't spend money'.)
They were a ton of fun to work with, and the post is being done on my schedule, with no clear deadline. These two things are very important to me for something like this - if a gig is a hassle, then its not worth doing for nothing. If there's a time frame, particularly an insane one, they better be paying.
Three is an ongoing adventure with a long time friend. He directs, I shoot, and vice versa. We borrow each other's gear. We also hire each other whenever possible. I love working with him, and paid or not, we make some cool stuff. Days are always smooth and short. See how that works?
You've probably gotten THOSE emails - 'We have no money and we're making an epic that's going to x film festival (yeah, that's not a guarantee, ever) and we need this impossible thing done by next week for nothing'. No.
You, no money people, are in no position to make demands of anyone. Plus, I've made the mistake of agreeing. A few times (I was that desperate kid once). They have all been, ego ridden, demanding, and usually obnoxious, as well as delusional about the initial quality of the project. None of these was ever worth putting on my reel, so they were a complete loss. Steer clear of these. If they really have anything worthwhile, they'll find a way to get money for it. And if they do, you won't see a dime if you agree to work for nothing. Unless they have something of real, tangible value to trade, walk away whistling.
In a nutshell: Is the project fun? Are the people awesome? Is it a real non profit, or some jerkwad who's purposely misusing that title? Am I going to walk away with something of tangible value?
That's how I decide whether or not a project gets my skills for free.
A little more on tangible value - is there something missing from my portfolio, or that I need to practice, that this gig will help with? If so, and the time investment isn't too large, I might consider that as well.
How do you decide?