Nearly 15 years ago, I helped launch a nonprofit organization with zero dollars in our bank account and a handful of volunteers. Since then, we’ve learned and grown (and laughed, and cried), overcoming roadblocks in funding and marketing and volunteer management and more. We owe our growth and triumph over those challenges to a number of factors, but the most important one is, of course, the people we’ve worked with. Throughout my work, our organization has had a need for a variety of types of talent. We work with volunteers, employ hourly and salaried staff, and hire contractors and freelancers. From the freelance world, I’ve worked with freelance graphic designers, board development consultants, and web developers, each offering a degree of flexibility, the agility that only working for one’s self can bring, and great results.I have tremendous respect for folks who choose to make their own way in the working world as freelancers. As freelancers now constitute over a third of the U.S. workforce, it’s time to consider them a valuable option and asset for nonprofits, too. I understand that working with any new type of talent can be intimidating, especially if you’re not sure how freelancing works. If you’re thinking of giving freelancers a try to help your cause but aren’t quite sure where to start, here are four steps to making your first foray into freelance effortless:
Step 1: Understand how freelancing works
Understanding how freelancers work, ideal times to bring on a freelancer, and the legal framework of freelancing is a great first step to alleviate anxiety about giving a freelancer a chance.
What is a freelancer? A freelancer is a self-employed professional who works on a project by project basis. While they often work on their own, they also work in teams.
Freelancers typically make their own hours and work from a location of their choosing, pay self-employment tax, choose which projects to work on, use their own tools to complete the work, do not have their own employees, and set their own rates. In most cases a freelancer and an independent contractor are one and the same, with a distinction being that more often freelancers can work on multiple projects at one time and an independent contractor may be working for a single entity at a given time.
How is a freelancer different from an employee? Unlike an employee of your organization, you are not legally able to tell a freelancer when, from where, or how to work. Rather, through the development of your particular project contract with the freelancer, you must outline the outcomes that must be achieved and other specifications of the resulting product. It’s important to be careful to adhere to this type of relationship with your freelancer; too much oversight or micromanaging can call into question whether the freelancer is being treated like an employee instead, which can lead to issues and uncertainty related to employment benefits should an audit ever arise. Finally, freelancers, as independent contractors, will be completing the 1099 form for taxes rather than a W-2, which is generally reserved for full-time employees.
How are freelancers legally protected? Though freelancers may have greater flexibility in how they perform their work, it’s crucial that an organization is able to adhere to a mutually respectful and professional relationship with a freelancer that guarantees they are compensated fairly for their work. To ensure fair treatment and compensation of freelancers, New York passed the “Freelance Isn’t Free” Act in 2017, requiring a written contract to be in place for any world valued at over $800, as well as payment within 30 days of the completion of the project terms unless otherwise detailed in the contract. Wethos, an online marketplace that matches freelancers specializing in nonprofit work with organizations in need of project help, applies these rules to its entire network of freelancers, even those residing outside of New York.
Step 2: Make sure your cause’s needs and goals are clear
I’ve worked with so many nonprofits who thought they needed someone to make them a video, build them a website, or write a grant for them, only to have those projects fail because those solutions weren’t truly the right fit for the needs and problems they were aiming to address. Before you know if a video is the right way to share your cause’s story, you need to know if your intended audience prefers videos over other mediums; before you know if you should write a grant to seek funding for your cause, you need to know if grants are the fundraising mechanism most likely to succeed for your efforts.
Bringing on any kind of worker -- from volunteer, to employee, to freelancer -- to tackle a project that isn’t the best fit with your actual needs will end in disappointing results on all sides. Before launching a project, you need a firm understanding of your organization’s true needs, and the best way to know what you truly need is by having a plan. A strategic plan, that is! Download a proven strategic plan guide to get started.
Before you advertise the need for a freelancers to help with a particular project, refer to your organization’s most recent strategic plan (or draft one). Identify your top outcomes or set of goals for the year, and work backwards: What projects or tasks need the most support in order to meet your goals for the year? If your goal this year was to raise awareness about your cause by reaching 10,000 additional people in your city, rallying support from a freelancer to build a marketing plan might be in order. If you need to serve 5% more clients in need and need to raise $50,000 more this year to do that, a freelancer can support fundraising efforts.
Like with any partnership, having a vision for the expected outcomes is the key to success. If you don’t yet fully know the best methods to meet your goals, don’t fret; in many cases, a freelancer, especially those well versed in the nonprofit world, can be a guide.
Step 3: Make the compelling case to your leaders
Whether you’re the Executive Director or a savvy staffer at your nonprofit organization, many hiring and budget decisions require someone higher up, such as your Board of Directors, to approve them. If your leadership still seems hesitant about giving a freelancer a try, there are many compelling reasons to choose to bring one on that you can share:
- Affordability: Though freelancers set their own rates, you know you’re not paying for some large firm’s overhead costs when you hire one. Plus, assuming your budget is reasonable from the outset, you’re likely to receive a number of inquiries from different freelancers vying for your project, which means you can pick the best fit for your finances and desired outcomes from the candidates. If there are concerns within your organization about going over a desired budget if issues arise with a project, there are a few ways you can mitigate that. First, internally identify and get approval for a budget range from leadership which includes additional funds for a worst case scenario in which unexpected challenges cause a project to take a freelancer longer than originally estimated. That will mean that even if something goes wrong, you’ve accounted for that possibility, and if it doesn’t, hey, your organization has extra money to allocate elsewhere to your vital work. Secondly, you can mitigate unexpected challenges by compiling all information possible about your organization and needs so that the freelancer has a clear idea of what issues could arise up front and account for that in providing you with an estimate of their costs. More on that below.
- Flexibility: Working with a freelancer is a great option for all projects, but especially short-term projects. When you hire a freelancer to accomplish a specific objective or project, you can estimate your likely costs up front, and avoid the ongoing commitment of hiring for a staff position if that’s not the best fit for your needs.
- Accountability: Freelancers are out there making it on their own, and that means reputation and a getting a good recommendation from a client is paramount. One bad experience can derail their entire means of making a living, so the incentive to do a great job for you is pretty high.
- A Unique Perspective: If you bring on a freelance team specializing in the nonprofit space, you can likely count on benefiting from their unique experience and knowledge gained from working with many different organizations of different shapes and sizes in a number of ways. That means they’ve learned what to do from organizations you aspire to emulate and what not to do from organizations that didn’t hit the mark -- and you get to benefit from this knowledge through your partnership with them, too.
Step 4: Assemble or update your Welcome Packet
To make on-boarding your new freelancer a breeze, assemble a “welcome packet”! This is a helpful and useful exercise that can be used for any new volunteer or team member joining your organization, but it can especially help your freelancer get acclimated quickly.
In your welcome packet, you’ll want to include:
- Your organization’s mission and vision statement. Your vision statement should answer the question, “if you wake up tomorrow, and you’ve changed the world, what does the world look like?” For example, your cause envisions a city without homelessness, or a nation in which everybody graduates from high school. Knowing your ultimate “why” can help you and your freelancer connect, bond, and stay inspired throughout your partnership.
- A copy of your strategic plan. Seeing your organization’s long-term goals and short-term strategies to meet those goals can help a freelancer customize their work to best meet your needs.
- Links to your organization’s website and social media pages. Freelancers can benefit from seeing how you talk to your audiences and what content you value putting out there front and center.
- Grant proposals or past fundraising requests. If possible, provide a copy of a grant or fundraising proposal that failed, and a copy of one that succeeded. Being able to understand what has worked for your specific organization in the past and what hasn’t is highly valuable for a freelancer, who can help you consider strategies for success learned from other projects.
- Marketing and branding documents. Does your organization use specific colors, fonts, words, or other themes in its website, social media, or other collateral? Providing a freelancer with a branding guide or requirements ensures you are both on the same page, especially for projects relating to design, public relations, or events.
- A scope of work, or at least the start of one. It’s okay to not know everything you’ll need right away from a freelancer, but if possible, outline what you can, especially the end deliverables from a project you desire, in advance of interviewing freelance candidates. Knowing the outcomes you desire from a project will enable your freelancer or freelance team to develop a proposal for you that will meet your needs and expectations, cutting down on time spent going back and forth trying to identify those outcomes.
There’s no reason trying a partnership with a freelancer to meet your cause’s needs has to be difficult. By knowing and being able to articulate your organization’s vision and needs and understanding how freelancing works, you can work with your freelancer or freelance team to ensure projects are easy, successful, and meaningful. The best part of navigating these steps is that once you’ve done it the first time, the next time is a breeze.
Ready to give freelancers a try?