A young neighbor worked for free several weekends painting housing interiors in a low-income neighborhood. That was a volunteer project his employer, a home-improvement retailer, partly sponsored. Although he was a nice kid, he was also ambitious. He assessed that his altruism would be noticed by the higher ups at the store. It was. He was offered a promotion.
Many of us have had those experiences in which we invested our labor without any monetary compensation, in hopes of some future gain. Sometimes that paid off and sometimes it didn't. The reality is that there never have been absolutes when it comes to the ethos of free.
And there never will be. In THE ATLANTIC, Ta-Nehisi Coates zeros in on this issue in the context of writing for publication. My hunch is that most writers reading that article have had experiences with contributing free content which furthered their careers and situations where nothing came of it.
After I had written freebies for the public relations director at an academic institution in western Pennsylvania, she told me of an opening in media at the University of Pittsburgh. I got the job. That was the mid 1970s. On the other hand I did a morning of freebies for a healthcare professional about six years ago and would have wound up with a queen-sized resentment had I not exited the mess before I did even more work. Although to this day I keep a distance from the woman, I never viewed myself as "exploited." We have to be open to engaging in the freebie game, otherwise we could miss out on a lot of opportunities.
It's unfortunate that this has become an issue because it really is not an issue. It's how the world works. Growing up in the machine politics of Jersey City, New Jersey I had no concept for separating free from paid. Survival was a seamless web of doing what was expected.