I have taken this subject seriously for over a decade. (Ok, I sound old! haha) Perhaps because I've been working for myself for 11 years now, always in artistic fields. I'm talking about the idea of "giving free work".
I mentioned earlier the creative aspect, because this issue seems dominant (and frequent) in professions such as graphic design, photography, illustration, writing, handmade, music... Altho after asking around, it is obviously not reserved to more creative work; fields like computer programming, teaching, and in a way, professional sports, are also often asked to work for free.
Now, let me get something straight first. I am not talking here about investing skills in a non-profit that you care about (read on that (and this whole subject really) on my friend Pierre's blog!). Nor lending physical goods, for a small amount of time, for a photoshoot, which will be returned intact and without fees to you. Nor helping your mother out with her lost kitty flyer. Nor giving simple opinions at a hangout with friends about their text on their website.
I mean more like magazines and journals asking photographers to give a free picture(s), but "we'll give you credit, of course". Or a start-up company asking for free copy writing for their first website, but "we'll pay you on future projects". Or big music festivals asking small bands to play for free, because "it's great exposure and visibility!". Or a publishing company asking an illustrator to create them a book cover, because "it'll be a great portfolio piece".
Or, in handmade goods' case, which is the category I've experienced personally for the past almost 8 years, a blog asking to send free samples, and then "I'll blog about it". Which is exactly what happened (for the I-can't-even-count-how-many-times) to me a couple of weeks ago that got me feeling this urge to talk about it now (along with this NYtimes article from a couple of months back). For some reason, this time in particular urked me even more than usual (lol), because the email was filled with "I LOVEEE your work!!!!", a "You inspire me!", and a couple of "Handmade is my life's passion!!!". Which is very contradictory, because when you ask me for free items, you are saying that my work is not worth a penny to you. You are also acting like you don't respect my time, all my efforts towards my career, nor my products. So NO, I don't inspire you. And by not even offering to pay shipping costs, you're adding salt on my wound (or, insult to injury, if you prefer). Even more, the blog in question (nope, won't drop a name, ain't giving it free publicity HA!) was in Italy (where I've sold only like twice ever), written in Italian (I can't read it, hence I couldn't even know if she wrote well or not), with really bad pictures (as in large-view-on-plaid-tablecloth-with-a-lot-of-flash bad), and it looked ugly as fuck as a whole (sorry, but it truly was a pain for my retina).
Let me just say this:
• Credits, future potential projects (also called "opportunities"), and exposure don't pay current bills. Ask anyone, in reality, these very rarely bring some concrete paid work. The chances of a company seeing one of your photos in the local paper and then actually researching you, contact you and offer you a paid contract are slim to none. Sure, it *could* happen. But I'm also sure your phone company *will* shut down your service if you don't pay your bill... There is an epic rant by Harlan Ellison (pretty funny too!) on the subject over here, and you can also read a good article called "Opportunities Are Bullshit".
• Your portfolio already exists, and that's why they're contacting you in the first place. Because they saw it, and liked it. That means your portfolio *already* works great. YAY!
• As far as blog posts go (which is also in the "exposure" realm), I think they ask for this to justify their own time spent on blogging. So basically, you're asking me to sacrifice my finished product, and time, and materials, and even take extra money out of my pocket (shipping fees), in order of helping you feel like you're not wasting your own time and energy? Puh-lease. Don't forget that pretty much none of the great, interesting, inspiring and most read blogs ask people to give their work away: they either just blog about it because they want to, or actually buy an item for themselves first.
I remember that in the early years of Etsy, there was chat rooms, and also live critique workshops, where one could voluntarily put their shop up for constructive comments from other sellers. I really loved participating in this, I felt like I could help others with the knowledge I had acquired over the previous months/years. They still had to do the work themselves, but having suggestions and opinions from people not as emotionally involved in the project is never a bad thing. However, one thing I always voiced my opinion against was "adding a free item" once you actually made a sale. I am against it yes, but my opinion is much less radical on this subject, simply because this is something one would decide of their own free will and initiative, not pressured into by someone else (altho at some point the practice was used SO much by so many sellers, that I did receive 2-3 "there was no free stuff with my order, this sucks" messages, which obviously I thought was annoying, and rude. lol).
I also remember that as a young graphic designer, right out of school in the early 2000's, without any actual contracts in my portfolio, that suggestions of working for free in exchange for "exposure" and "portfolio pieces" was very enticing. I am guilty of doing a couple of free business cards back then, as well as doing a couple of projects for a very low pay (between 25 and 50% of actual worth). I also realized quickly that I lost much drive for the project once I got half way thru, and my self-confidence got screwed up fairly quickly in the process. But believe me, I totally understand that urge to actually create, as well as that desire to show what you're capable of, to prove yourself to the world, at any cost. The problem with that is (this also applies even if you're a veteran) that by giving of yourself for nothing (or undervaluing), you're denying that vision of the person you want to be: a creative paid right. You're shooting yourself in the foot, basically. It's also cutting the grass under the feet of others in your field (they are your competition, yes, but they are also a lot of things that you want to be, such as actually paid), and hurting your profession as a whole (if everyone starts to sell themselves short, at some point no one will ever want to pay (or pay what it's worth) for the service/object, EVER).
As far as trades with strangers go, well... I do them myself once in a while, but only if I actually really WANT or NEED the product or service, and if they are of close value. The problem only arises if it's something you don't really desire, or if it's not even close to being equal.
And for friends, I suggest going with your instinct perhaps? If it's a case of the "can you program my whole CSS 5page bilingual website in exchange for a coffee and a hug?", then you might have to either just say that you don't feel like it/don't have time, or think of a counter proposition that makes sense and suggest it. For example, a couple of rooms in your new apartment might need to be painted and it seems like about the same number of hours than the task they asked you for. They'll either decline altogether because that made them realize what they were actually asking for (and hopefully, they are a true friend and will keep being your friend as usual), or think it's totally worth it and you'll both be happy! But if it's something along the lines of "can you show me how to put this text in bold in my free Wordpress blog post?", then don't be an asshole, don't charge for that! lol
Free work is never really free. Each time you do it, you hurt your value and loose some self-confidence, because it's like accepting and agreeing that your skill is worth nothing. Personally, I prefer eating peanut butter toasts for a long while before I agree to that again. ;)
Ok, I think that I've gotten pretty much everything off my chest now. lol! Obviously, not everyone has such a radical opinion on the subject... Including Seth Godin (which surprised me actually) in his blog post "Should You Work For Free?".
I accept other points of views, or a more nuanced opinion, so feel free to share them in comments, even if it's to tell me that I'm totally wrong. lol! ;)
To finish on a less gloomy note, I suggest taking a look at this "Should I work For Free" visual chart for a humorous spin on a serious subject! ;)