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.

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