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In general, it's a bad idea to give away your work. It teaches employers not to value what you do. However, as a beginner -- or even as a seasoned freelancer -- you may find that there are occasions where you derive enough benefit to make it worth your time.
For your very first professional project, you may want to do some work for a friend or family member just to have something to put in your portfolio -- and, often, to gain some experience understanding how clients' minds work and how to make them happy.
When you're in a phase of building relationships and a reputation, you may wish to volunteer your services to a nonprofit or community organization as a way of building contacts as well as a portfolio. It's wise to volunteer for specific, time-limited projects, such as a Web site for a charity auction or posters for a public-service campaign.
Whenever you do a free project, ask the client for a testimonial you can use in your portfolio or on your Web site, and be sure to use the experience to build your network of professional contacts.