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How to Decline a Project While Helping The Client Succeed

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As a freelancer, your entire business hinges on finding paying clients. So, declining paid work seems very counterintuitive, especially when you have an open calendar. But working with the wrong client can be much worse.

Maybe their budget is too low or the timeline is too short. Maybe your interests aren’t aligned or you don’t have the necessary skills. Maybe you’re just getting a bad vibe.

You’re not going to be a good fit for every project and not every client is going to be a good fit for your business. But when the time comes to say “no” to a client, don’t leave them empty-handed. There are a few ways to guide your client toward success while declining to do the work yourself.

You won't be a good fit for every project. Not every client will be a good fit for your business. Learn to say no. Click To Tweet

When I first started freelancing, I accepted projects from anyone who was willing to pay me. As you might imagine, that didn’t always end well. Some clients left feeling dissatisfied while others never paid. Not having a specific focus meant I wasn’t in a position to get specific results.

Declining paid work starts with identifying your ideal clients, then saying “no” to anyone who doesn’t match your criteria.

Why Decline Paid Work?

When you decline a project that isn’t a good fit, you create room for projects that are a better fit. You also leave room for internal business development or personal projects. But when is the right time to say no? Why would you decline a project with a wide-open calendar? Consider declining the project when:

  • The client doesn’t have an appropriate budget
  • The timeline is too short or the project feels rushed
  • Your interests and approach don’t match the clients
  • You don’t have the right skills or experience for the job
  • Your gut (experience) tells you that this is a bad idea
It's better to decline work than waste time on a project that doesn't help you or the client succeed. #freelancing Click To Tweet

Respond to Every (Client) Email

Responding to every serious inquiry is an important part of your business. It might seem like a waste of time to email a client you aren’t going to work with, but doing so will benefit everyone. Not responding at all can damage your reputation and make you look unprofessional. If a client takes the time to contact you, take the time to respond.

Why Responding to Every Email is Good for Your Business

I don’t get many spammy or “cut and paste” inquiries, but when it’s bad enough, I ignore them or hit the spam button. It’s ok for you to do the same. This discretion will come with time and experience.

Make an effort to help every client seeking your services, even if they aren't a good fit for your business. Click To Tweet

When you respond, there are 3 helpful ways to guide the client towards success without leaving them empty-handed. Instead of being an immediate dead-end, you become a valuable resource. By sharing your knowledge and expertise, you make yourself memorable.

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Option 1: Recommend People

If you like the project, but the timeline and budget aren’t working for you, recommend the project to someone else. I maintain a growing list of talented freelancers that I can refer clients to in this situation. It’s up to them to make the connection, but at least I wasn’t a dead-end for them. Recommending another person will prevent you from feeling guilty after declining their project. Here’s a sample email you might write:

Hi <Client Name>,

Thanks for reaching out to me with this opportunity. Unfortunately, I do not have any immediate availability for new work right now. In fact, I am completely booked for [time frame].

While I may not be able to help right now, please keep me in mind for future projects and I’ll keep you in my contacts in case my availability changes. If you’d like, I can refer you to a few trusted freelancers that might be able to help on this project.

Thanks again!


If you don’t like the project or think it might be a hassle, don’t recommend it to your friends or fellow freelancers. Instead, try recommending resources or do-it-yourself solutions.

Option 2: Recommend Resources

If you can’t recommend anyone for the project, recommend a few helpful resources instead. Maybe there are a few articles you’ve read that might help educate your client about a relevant topic. Maybe there is a service you can recommend that can help them reach their goals. Here’s a sample email you might write:

Hi <Client Name>,

Thanks for reaching out to me with this great opportunity. Unfortunately, I’m not taking on any new projects at this time, but here are a few resources I think you might find helpful:

Thank you again for taking the time to consider me for this project. Please keep me in mind for future projects and don’t hesitate to reach out if you have more specific questions.

All the best,


Over time, keep track of the questions prospective clients ask you and the types of projects they have. Then, have a few helpful resources ready for them.

Option 3: Recommend a DIY Solution

Sometimes it’s best to recommend a pre-made solution or existing service to your prospective client. This is best done when the client doesn’t have a big budget, you don’t have time, or when there is a way to meet their needs without your expertise. Of course, you can also do this if you simply don’t want to work on the project. Here’s a sample email you might write:

Hi<Client Name>,

Thanks for reaching out to me with this opportunity. I’m happy to hear more about your project, but I wanted to let you know of a few [services or solutions] that I think can meet your needs on a smaller budget. Take a look at these [websites, services, articles] to see if they can help you:

If those <websites, services, articles> aren’t quite what you’re looking for, let me know and we can continue talking about how I can help you on this project. Thank you again for taking the time to contact me.

All the best,


Don’t hesitate to share how much these solutions and services typically cost and what they can expect to get out of them. You can list the pro’s and con’s to help educate your client’s whenever possible.

Use Email Templates

Responding to (almost) every client email might sound like a great idea, but it can also be time-consuming. That’s why I created pre-made email templates to minimize the time I spend writing emails while still keeping them personal. Just write the email once, save the template, then re-use it for every new client email. It’s that easy.


I use the Yesware Google Chrome extension for Gmail for $12/month, but considering the volume of email I send/receive, this is a worthwhile investment. If you aren’t receiving a lot of inquiries, just save the templates in a document and paste them into your email composer as needed.

Using email templates can save you time and help you write more consistently. That’s why I collected the 10 most common emails I send to my own clients and made them available to you for in my client email response templates bundle!

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Don’t be a dead-end for your prospective clients. By simply responding and offering your assistance, you make yourself valuable and memorable. Maybe that client will postpone the project until they have more time. Maybe they won’t take your advice and come back after having a bad experience. Maybe your advice actually helped them find a solution on a small budget.

Your value isn’t defined by your income. Make an effort to help everyone who contacts you, especially clients.

Have more unique questions about freelancing?

Freelancers need more than books, articles, videos, and podcasts. Most of the answers to your unique questions (like how to decline a client project) require conversation.

That’s why I created a community where you can connect with other freelancers from around the world, learn from their experiences, ask questions, and get tailored advice when you need it most. Plus, you can chat with me directly!

Join The Freelance Institute and talk to other freelancers, meet people on the same path as you, ask questions, get answers, find out what worked for them, and what will work best for you!

Last updated on May 24th, 2022

About Matt Olpinski
Matt runs his own web design and development company Matthew’s Design Co. and teaches thousands of freelancers how to succeed through his personal blog, newsletter, and community for freelancers — The Freelance Institute.
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