I once made the mistake of reading "Push," which tells the story of a teenager who faces horrific abuse, poverty, and illiteracy. Don’t get me wrong–it’s a phenomenal read. It’s just that I didn’t expect to be quite so moved. When I finished the book, I leaned back against my pillow exhausted, but too emotional to sleep.
Turns out, galvanization, insomnia, and a laptop make for a dangerous mix. Faster than you can say “will work for free,” I clicked over to the website of an organization serving homeless families and dashed off an email offering my writing services on a pro bono basis.
I hit “send,” fell asleep and promptly forgot the entire thing. Forgot it so entirely, in fact, that when I received an enthusiastic email from the agency’s development director the very next day, I was confused. “What is this?” I wondered.
And then my amnesia cleared, to be replaced by (I’m embarrassed to admit) trepidation. I was struggling enough with the time constraints involved in completing my paid work, drumming up more paid work, and running a household that I felt I didn’t have time to volunteer. What was I thinking?
But I felt I had to respond. And guess what? I’m so glad I did. I’ve been volunteering with the organization since then, and it’s been fantastic. Here are some of the surprising benefits of doing volunteer writing work (well, they were surprising to me).
Benefits of Pro Bono Freelance Writing
- Opportunity to make a difference in your community. I know, I know, this is obvious. But immediately after my initial, adrenalin-driven email in the wake of "Push," I got distracted by all of life’s distractions. I forgot about how much I care about the issue of homelessness. It felt good to finally do something about it.
- New skills. One of the best things about volunteering for a nonprofit is the diversity of assignments. Non-profit workers (and volunteers) tend to be jacks-of-all-trades because of the organizations’ limited budgets, so as a volunteer, you’ll likely get to do things you’ve never tried before. In my case, despite having worked in nonprofit for several years myself, I had never written a television public service announcement before. Now, I have.
- Clips: “Hey!” I thought after I completed my first assignment (an article for the agency’s annual report). “I can put this on my website!” Isn’t that one of the biggest problems for newer freelancers—the catch-22 of not having clips, so we can’t get clips? While I wasn't the newest freelancer on the block, I wasn't seasoned either, and most of my publications were only for one media venue. The volunteer work allowed me to look, and be more diversified.
- New opportunities: Part of a community organization’s work involves raising public awareness about the issues they represent, so they’re often itching to get articles into the local press. One organization I worked with, for example, hired volunteer writers to author monthly newspaper articles about various mental health issues.
- Writing practice: I know this sounds cheesy, but it’s so true. Volunteer writing work is meaningful on a whole different level than paid writing work, and somehow, it helps my other writing become more meaningful and authentic. Maybe it’s because the volunteering helps me lead a more meaningful/authentic life, which naturally flows into my writing.
Tips for a Successful Volunteer Freelance Writing Experience
- Choose an issue you feel strongly about. Yep, it sounds like a no-brainer. But it can be easy to lose sight of this in favor of what you think will help you the most. For example, you may be tempted to choose a flashier, better-known organization over a lesser-known one even though you don’t care as much about the issue. In my opinion, this is the wrong way to go. Why? Because most organizations deal with some type of pain (homelessness, abuse, pollution, etc.), and the stronger your desire to reduce this pain, the stronger your writing will be.
- Start small. Don’t go in there offering everything under the moon! You may regret it later. Test the waters first with just one assignment. Later, you can increase your hours if you like. My own volunteer gig ranges from 0-3 hours/week, which is just right for me.
- Treat it like a paid gig. The volunteer coordinator (or development director, or whoever you are reporting to) is the one in charge, and the buck stops there. So if she edits what you write or asks you to make changes, respond with the same professionalism you would for a regular job.
- When you get busy with your paid work, let your organization know. Last week, my organization’s development director emailed me with a quick question. I answered, then mentioned to her (nicely) that I was on a deadline. It let her know to wait a while before offering me another assignment. It also let her know why I might be slow to answer emails in the next week or two.
- If it’s not a good fit, it’s not a good fit. Sometimes, volunteer placements just don’t work out. Maybe the organization doesn’t have a good volunteer system in place yet, or maybe the types of assignments they offer just don’t match up with your interests. If you’ve given it a fair shot, and it’s still not working, complete your current assignment, write a polite and professional volunteer resignation letter, and cast your sights elsewhere.
- Keep up the communication: Take it from a former social worker and nonprofit manager: Nonprofit managers are overwhelmed! If weeks go by and you haven’t gotten another assignment, be the proactive one and check in.
- Follow protocol: Make sure you understand all the privacy rules and follow them to a tee. For example, if you write an article for the organization’s website focusing on specific clients, make sure all releases are signed and that you have signed a confidentiality agreement. The volunteer coordinator can, and should, help you with this.
Good luck, and happy volunteering!