When I was a communications strategist at one of the country’s major research universities, I once hired a writer who offered to work for us for free. I’ll never do it again.
Wait – what? Turn down free labor? You betcha. I was promised top-of-the line journalism. What I got was closer to the C- and D-level work I graded when I taught college freshman composition and journalism classes.
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That was a tough lesson for me to learn. I was working for a resource-strapped organization. Not only did we not have enough money to hire, but we also had no staff (other than me) who could craft features and social media spots that promoted our mission and message. As you know, in this line of work, communicating the mission and message is paramount – particularly when strategy calls for fixing a budget deficit.
One day, a new freelancer offered to help us. She had deep roots in the local journalism community, an impressive journalism pedigree and stellar references. She had been editing in recent years, so her story clips were outdated. Still, she promised us the moon – professional photos, quick turnaround, SEO keywords, polished prose. We fell for it, hook line and sinker.
Days spilled into weeks. The professional-quality photos morphed into iPhone shots and jpegs submitted by the subject. I lost count of the number of revisions we did on the two, 500-word features, in part because I had to rewrite one of them. The author did not understand fundamental technique, such as how to write anecdotal ledes, structure a feature or use quotes, let alone grasp the nuances of positioning message high in the story. She did not take the time to understand our mission. And she infuriated one professor because she misconstrued or misunderstood the life story the professor was trying to tell her.
In the end, the only thing that ran free was the frustration the professor and I felt as we tried to salvage the work we nevertheless needed for our platforms.
Now, is every case that bad? No. Can – and should – some writers write for free? Sure. Even mechanics fix their mamas’ cars for free, right? But as one who hires writers and as a writer for hire, I suggest that we all start viewing the ability to craft clear, concise, compelling copy – and copy that often is tied to an outcome as many of our nonprofit needs demand – as a valuable commodity.
1. Because you can’t afford it. There is never enough time in the nonprofit world to do everything we need to do. How many of us truly do one job and one job only? You’re hiring a wordsmith who is supposed to be taking some of the burden off you. But typically, pro bono writers are looking for experience or to bump up a CV, which means they may not have the talent or skill to suit your needs. In the end, after rounds of coaching, fact-checking and editing, you’ll likely find it would have been easier and faster to do the job yourself.
2. Because you can afford it. In my case, my boss decided to look though all of our funding streams to where she could spend to help us with our social media and content needs. She found it in a special, flexible account. A funder also wanted to help us with recruitment, and her gift permitted us to outsource the social media and video spots we were craving. On that job, I learned that many local and national philanthropies – frustrated because the public can’t see how their money is put to use – are increasingly willing to help projects that focus on digital and social media. Which means storytellers or writers for you.
3. Because it’s worth it. A seasoned writer might seem expensive. But that price tag usually means that author has experience, training and results. She knows how to craft stories that sing your mission and message from mountain tops – and can use SEO, digital platforms and analytics to prove it. You will see an immediate pay off in her work.
Finally, you’ll get far more than you pay for. I am working under a contract that a nonprofit had to set aside for a few months. This organization pays well and has been respectful of my expertise and time, taking pains to be sure I have what I need and answer the questions I have. I’m not getting paid right now – shh, don’t tell them – but you can bet I am keeping tabs on what they’re doing and how they’re appearing in the news. I may be working beyond the scope of the contract, but I want to give them the highest-quality product I can after the contract is reactivated. That’s the beauty of the relationship. I like working for a company that values what I do, so I will give them my best work. When they see how my feature stories will benefit them – I hope – they’ll be persuaded they did the right thing. And then they’ll hire me again.
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Tags: Erika Hobbs