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Freelancers: Nonprofit Does NOT Mean Non-Paying

Read Time: 4 min

A few days ago a colleague shared a story about a recent experience with a nonprofit organization. Here's the gist of what happened:

  1. The client hired the freelance writer for a previous project at the writer's professional rates.
  2. The client had need for a professional writer again.
  3. The writer sent a proposal (which the client asked for).
  4. The client contacted the writer saying they could really use this person's talents, but the organization hasn't been funded. Oh, and they said they wanted the writer to do the work for free. As clients wanting freebies often do, the non-buyer implied the writer should look at the long-term opportunity (because you know, non-paying clients always turn into super lucrative gigs down the road).

In this case the writer did the same thing I would have done. The gig was turned down and the client was told they could get in touch when they were adequately funded to cover the professional services.

Should You Ever Take Non-Paying Nonprofit Gigs?

While the writer made the best choice for themselves in this case, that doesn't mean you should always turn down volunteer work with nonprofits -- as long as doing so doesn't impact your business negatively. It can be a far better way to build a freelance writing portfolio than writing content for absurdly low rates for otherwise paying markets (because you target unprofessional markets with far worse reputations than a respectable nonprofit organization has).

If you want to take on the occasional volunteer gig as a freelance writer, here are a few things to keep in mind:

  1. Choose organizations and causes you're passionate about.
  2. Do not let volunteer work take any of your billable hours. Do it outside of working hours altogether or at least work it into your time allocated to marketing and PR -- it's good PR for your business after all.
  3. Solicit volunteer opportunities on your own rather than simply saying "yes" to any and all nonprofits that come along begging for freebies.

That said, nonprofit agencies do pay professional writers and other contractors. They do have budgets. I used to work in the nonprofit sector and have dealt with organizations big and small. It's amazing how much some of their management is paid, and it's even more amazing how much money can actually be wasted. The fact that an organization isn't trying to earn a profit does not mean the organization has no operating costs. Those operating costs include paying for professional services from regular employees and specialized contractors alike.

Nonprofit Warning Signs

Keeping that in mind, here are some warning signs to look out for (and hints that you might want to pass on a volunteer gig for a nonprofit agency):

  1. They initially pay you and then try to talk you down to working for free.
  2. They request a proposal knowing damn well that will include service rates, and then try to say there's no budget. That does nothing but waste your time and demonstrate their professional disrespect for you.
  3. They try to convince you that you should care about their cause as much as they do (and they can be very convincing when they want something -- I know that because I was very good at it myself in my nonprofit days, and it was one reason I left).
  4. They promise you'll see benefits later if you just invest the time now (what they really mean is you'll get a warm and fuzzy feeling thinking you're doing something good -- not that they'll suddenly start paying you once you show them they can get you to work for free).
  5. The organization is brand new or one you've never heard of. Anyone can start a nonprofit organization and ask for handouts to support a cause they care about. That doesn't mean you have to support every cause out there.
  6. They say they aren't funded. If they can't get initial funding, there's no guarantee they'll be funded later to pay for your services down the road.
  7. They tell you that your usual rates are tax deductible if you do the work for free. They're not. (That's true for U.S. service providers; check your own local rules regarding tax deductible services if you're located elsewhere.)
  8. They try to guilt trip you in any way, shape, or form. That's emotional manipulation and shouldn't be tolerated from any client, nonprofit or otherwise.

Nonprofit markets can be very lucrative for freelancers who specialize in them. Organizations need compelling copy to solicit donations. Many need bloggers. Many need regular newsletter content. They need brochures. They need scripts for radio and television public service announcements. Some need writers to handle internal communication.

Types of nonprofit gigs are as numerous as traditional corporate freelance writing jobs. And there are plenty of organizations that are adequately funded and interested in hiring professionals over less experienced (but easier-to-get) volunteers because they know the return they'll see can far outweigh the costs.

Don't believe for one second that just because someone works for a nonprofit organization it means you shouldn't get paid. There is nothing wrong with doing some volunteer work out of the goodness of your heart. But don't let that ambition to do good turn you into a sucker.

Know the organizations you get involved with and don't commit to more than you can handle on a volunteer basis. Also don't assume that one volunteer gig should lead to ongoing freebies. You might very well take on a small project as a volunteer and convince the organization to hire you for more in-depth writing work later.

What are your thoughts on nonprofits? Have you ever experienced something like the writer mentioned above? Have you had a nonprofit try to guilt trip you into providing your services for free? How did you deal with it? How do you incorporate the occasional volunteer gig into your schedule without negatively impacting your business? Share your thoughts, tips, and stories in the comments below.

18 thoughts on “Freelancers: Nonprofit Does NOT Mean Non-Paying”

  1. Amen indeed! A web developer friend told me about a case in which the nonprofit kept stalling and drawing out the proposal process for weeks.

    At the same time, they were insisting there was a really short deadline and the work had to get done fast.

    Turned out what they were really doing is taking everything they learned during the proposal process, and phone conversations, and using it behind the scenes. Voila! a brand new website for free.

    Reply
    • That sucks for that developer. Sadly some for-profit clients do the same thing. Another writer just commented on Twitter about that the other day — a client insisting on a short deadline and that magically changing when it suited them. And what that nonprofit did your developer friend sounds a lot like the clients who ask for free “samples” from a bunch of writers, then using them instead of actually hiring anyone. It’s disgusting. But as freelancers I guess that’s a fine line we have to walk — giving away enough information to show that we know our stuff and keeping enough to ourselves that clients still need us.

      And sorry about the slow loading issues you emailed me about. It’s been frustrating the heck out of me for weeks now. The original theme I customized for the recent change was coded very poorly — too much javascript, too many php calls, images aren’t even close to being well-optimized, etc. When running a plugin that was supposed to help us automatically optimize a few things, it knocked out our database. And then we found out the hard way that the backups from the new host weren’t full — one more headache. So that meant manual fixes for over a month’s worth of content. And I’ve since been trying to get database backups working correctly. I believe we finally figured out those issues last night (thanks to my awesome developer b/f who I probably should have brought in to help much earlier). So I’m hoping to tackle all of our optimization issues a bit more aggressively this week and next, now that I don’t have to be quite as terrified that we’ll lose everything again and have to do several months’ of manual restoration work. It’ll be fixed as soon as I can possibly fix it all. Promise. 🙂 That’s also the big reason I’ve held off on some of the new feature launches and promoting the new job board to clients. So lots of stuff to come once I get this optimization out of the way. 🙂

      Reply
  2. AMEN. Finally, a sensible post on nonprofits. I’m not surprised it’s coming from you, Jenn. 🙂

    It makes me cringe to think that there are people out there hiding behind the nonprofit status and expecting free work as a result. Nonsense. Even nonprofits have paid staff. There’s no reason why writers should expect nothing for their efforts.

    I’m glad that writer turned down the gig. Funding should be in place well before the nonprofit goes looking for help. Any legitimate organization would know that.

    Reply
    • I know you already know this Lori, but the games some nonprofits play are a huge pet peeve of mine having been put in the manipulator position myself in that sector. It’s insane. Yes, there are some legitimate cases where organizations ask for help. But the “we can’t pay you just because we’re a nonprofit and therefore you should want to help us for free” kind of crap is just wrong. Many can pay you. And if they value what you bring to the table, they will. Just like small businesses — if you can’t finance the business, you are’t ready to launch it. The same is true of nonprofits. And it’s the startup group you frequently have to look out for. Always research a nonprofit carefully before donating anything, especially if you’ve never heard of them. Sometimes you’ll even get pitches from people with no nonprofit registration — they just claim to be nonprofit and expect people to give things for free. Ugh.

      Reply
  3. Ooh Jennifer, that whole coding mess sounds sooo frustrating. I’m thinking about changing my blog theme (but slightly terrified it will break). Hope you get it all straightened out soon!

    Short version of longer story, I had a similar issue with a would-be client who wanted free work (“to see if my writing was compatible”). Ha!

    Reply
    • “Frustrating” only begins to describe it. 😉

      In general you should be find switching blog themes. Just back things up first. The backup problem we had here was rare. I change themes on blogs all the time and bad experiences are definitely the exception to the rule. In this case it was a premium theme where I couldn’t review the code until I purchased it. And it wasn’t until I really dug into the customizations that I came across the issues (like a lot of javascript that was unnecessary for a typical site, and images being used where a simple background color should have been declared in the stylesheet). You generally don’t have to worry about this level of clean-up.

      I got through some of the more basic optimization tasks today. The site’s still much slower than I want it to be, but the speed tests were showing much better results for the homepage and main blog page. So at least we have some progress finally. Should be more to come soon. 🙂

      As for that would-be client, I’d kindly inform them that I’d need a payment up front just to see if their bank account was “compatible.”

      Reply
  4. >>As for that would-be client, I’d kindly inform them that I’d need a payment up front just to see if their bank account was “compatible.”<<

    LOL. I emailed them asking about payment. The woman got so flustered that she wrote an email asking for help on what to do – and sent it to me instead of her boss!

    Reply
  5. Looks like we’re going to have to change plugins. Can anyone suggest a social media plugin meeting the following requirements:

    1. It must work with multiple social media sites.
    2. It must work with both old and new Twitter versions.
    3. It must not require application authorization via Twitter.

    Reply
  6. I agree. Non-profits do pay and they’ll pay well, because they want/need results. That’s my experience, anyway.

    I’m sorry you’re having issues with the slow site loading times. I thought it was just me. This morning I couldn’t get in at all. The only way I could get here was by clicking the post link in my google reader. It was still slow, but at least I got in.

    Reply
    • We went down earlier for just a 2-3 minute stretch while I was doing some admin work, but it should have been up other than that. Might have just be unlucky timing. 🙂 Still working on the slowness. Faster now than yesterday by a lot. I did notice that Firefox seems slower today though — all the other browsers were seeing better results. Not sure why. Still have a lot to work on though, so hopefully we can get it a bit faster before the start of next week.

      Reply
  7. I’ve worked around this by not doing any writing related work for non-profits. One of the main reasons I wanted to get into self- employment was the ability to volunteer for a nonprofit during the day and during their working hours.

    I’m trained to work professionally as a museum curator, so I’ve done a lot of work in other museum’s collections departments. And for other groups, I’ve done some PR or just general office work. I’ve never really volunteered to do, say, a newsletter for them.

    When people ask me what I do for a living, I point them to my website which has my rate schedule clearly written out. And if someone on staff says something about “not being able to afford my rates,” I just point out that I’ve got more work than I can handle and I’m there to go work for a cause I’m passionate about.

    Reply
  8. Most non-profit organizations are savvy, principled, and appreciative clients.

    Sadly it is not uncommon to be approached by individuals/groups who are in the process of applying for, but have not secured, their 501(c)(3), non-profit, status with the IRS, or an existing non-profit with newly recruited board members who need training. It is this type of inexperience that leads them to misconstrue the responsibilities, level of accountability, or the consequences of misuse that are tied to grant funding.

    An organization without stable funding is not ready to apply for a grant. Grant funding is not seed money. Funders want to see an established capacity with budgets, collaboration with other community organizations/resources, and a 100% participation of the Board of Directors via contributions that can be defined as “significant and meaningful.”

    As a grant writing professional you can and should expect that any organization interested in your services be ready to write grants. They will have identified their funding sources or be willing to pay for research as well, and have a budget to support those services. The going rate for grant writers in the Northwest is $65-$120 an hour depending on the scope of the project and the contractor’s experience.

    Grant writing contractors do not write on commission, take deferred payment or work for a percentage of the grant. It is considered unethical to write your salary into a proposal’s budget.

    To my knowledge, there is not a funding agency in the nation that would allow or fund a budget line item for the grant writer who drafted the “in-hand” proposal. Save pro-bono work for the organization you are willing to devote your time and resources to as a member of its Board of Directors.

    Reply
  9. AWESOME post! Thank you! And thank you Jodi for linking to it. VERY good information here and a great place for anyone working with non-profits to start. I’m passionate about many things, but was becoming very disillusioned with the “we’re poor and needy” chant when it was obvious they had $$ for so many other things – just not me. Wonderful!

    Reply
    • That’s a great way to put it — if they can afford professional design work, large office space, relatively high salaries for regular staff, paying temps to manage campaigns for them, etc. (as several I’ve worked for could), then they can afford you too. If not, and if you can’t justify doing for the PR (let’s face it — you only have so many hours in a day), then let them find a student with less experience willing to do it for their portfolio.

      Reply
  10. Great post on writing for nonprofits! I’ve been interested in freelance writing for nonprofits that support the arts (blogging and newsletter content especially) but I’m wondering as to how to contact these organizations? I want to be able to offer my services efficiently, but some organizations I’ve sent emails too haven’t replied yet. I appreciate any help in this problem that has arisen.

    Reply
    • The best option is to do what you’re already doing — just keep pitching. Most companies and organizations don’t respond to cold pitches, or at least don’t buy right away. It’s a numbers game. You have to keep pitching and the “yes” responses will eventually start coming in. If you don’t have any direct experience writing for nonprofits yet, you might want to consider a pro bono project for a local organization you don’t mind volunteering for. One of my own earliest portfolio pieces was actually a pro bono project for my county’s library system. The more relevant your portfolio pieces are, the more persuasive they’ll be. 🙂

      Reply
      • Thank you so much for your reply. I’d been looking into this but didn’t really know where to start. I’ll be sure to get on with it!

        Reply

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