Why Freelance Writers Love Working Part-Time for Nonprofits
Christine Ro | March 2018
In some ways, Hannah Brown is living the dream. A few years out of college, she has a remote, part-time job working on a cause that’s deeply important to her. She also has the freedom to write about varied topics, from food to theater. She says, “I count myself incredibly lucky to have a flexible, self-structured schedule, freedom to travel, diverse assignments, and to get paid to do work I believe in.” What allows her to achieve this balance is a career split between 8–12 hours a week on communications for a nonprofit organization (the United Federation of Teachers) and her own freelance writing.
This isn’t possible or desirable for everyone. But plenty of freelance writers have found, as Brown has, that this kind of career split is a good way to marry the excitement of writing and the structure of nonprofit work.
The Rising Appeal of a Mixed Career
Data is lacking about the exact number of freelance writers who work part-time for nonprofit organizations. But freelancing in general has increased hugely since the start of the millennium to about 53 million freelancers in the United States. Over 23 million of these freelancers hold down part- or full-time jobs as well.
There’s also a trend of organizations outsourcing their communications jobs. Rick Cohen is the Director of Communications and Operations for the National Council of Nonprofits, the largest non-profit network in the U.S. He explains that nonprofits have tended to embrace the trend toward remote and flexible working, and are “seeing that that’s a more effective way of doing work.”
Remote working is advantageous to writers who don’t want to be tethered to an office every day—and who need the space to report location-specific stories, to conduct research, to attend writers’ conferences, and to be on the move for other reasons related to their writing. Cohen points out that remote working is also beneficial to smaller nonprofits in particular, as these might simply not have enough desks for all their staff. As such organizations have traditionally needed to be resourceful, “nonprofits have that open mind” when it comes to alternative work arrangements. Technological tools like videoconferencing, Slack, and virtual private networks have been enormously helpful in bringing employers and employees together without regard to physical space.
Why Part-Time Nonprofit Work Is So Attractive to Freelance Writers
As suggested above, the flexibility of working for a nonprofit is a major draw. Nonprofits tend to have more room to maneuver around human resources, especially if they’re small and scrappy organizations. So they may go further in accommodating your needs than a for-profit company is likely to do.
Kelsey Dayton has a great example of this. She went the opposite route of Brown, going from full-time freelance to a part-time office job with the Outdoor Writers Association of America. Her boss was helpful from the start when it came to recognizing her need for flexibility, such as taking freelance calls in the office.
The malleability of the role went further, though. Dayton recalls, “I really tested that about a year in, when I took a six week assignment (interim editor of a small town paper while the editor was on maternity leave). [My boss] let me work from there, not only giving me flexibility of where I was working, but also I basically was like I’ll be working nights and weekends on the magazine since I'll be at the paper during the day. They’ve been great in general with allowing me flexibility needed.”
Freelance writers who need flexible schedules are also well positioned to appreciate stability—the yin to the freelance yang. There’s the stability of a steady paycheck, of course, which helps compensate for the irregularity of freelance finances.
But there’s also the regularity of scheduled tasks, with the same people, often at the same location. Some people find the utter freedom of full-time freelancing a bit daunting, so some structure is better than too much or none at all. Brown is speaking for many when she says, “I navigate having these two different jobs a lot better than I navigated being a 9-to-5-er. I’ve figured out that I thrive in a structured environment, but only when it’s self-imposed! And I work better with deadlines than set hours.”
It can also be nice to have a break from straight writing, whether a writer is more journalistic, essayistic, or creative. Dayton says of her decision to work for the Outdoor Writers Association (OWAA), “I loved that the nonprofit was still in the journalism/communication world and I loved that the job itself used my journalism skills. And I primarily freelance write, so I also liked the idea of breaking up with some editing stuff… Plus, since I work for OWAA, I also get to meet other writers and editors, so I make good connections from having the job.”
Like a writing career covering diverse beats, being able to switch back and forth between a nonprofit’s laser focus on core issues and freelance assignments can make for a stimulating amount of variety. Brown says, “I'm energized by having a broad range of work to do…I intentionally take lots of different assignments: real estate, food, nutritional science, theater, labor and childbirth, and pet care are some of the topics I write on.”
At the same time, she’s been able to build up a core expertise on labor issues. This, and the United Federation of Teachers, was a good fit for her because, as she puts it, “I've been passionate about labor rights and New York City for a long time, so when I graduated, I knew I wanted to work at a union in New York City.” Several years later, she still finds “the work fulfilling because I believe so strongly in the need for the union.”
Cohen agrees that combining work in this way gives freelancers “the ability to kind of jump around and gain different experiences and work with different groups rather than being tied down full-time.” He also mentions a crucial point that nearly every freelance writer who works for a nonprofit also cites: the value of this work. He sums it up by saying, “For the freelancer, it really offers the opportunity to connect with a cause that they really care about, while still maintaining the flexibility to work on additional projects. So it’s really a win-win.”
In the U.S., nonprofits are having a moment. Along with comedy news shows, organizations dedicated to civil liberties and reproductive rights are increasingly relevant in the current political climate. But the people who’ve worked for them have long known that a sense of mission and purpose can enliven—and for some people is essential to—a career. The ability to effect positive change through communications is attractive to many freelance writers.
What Does a Part-Time Communications Professional Do, Anyway?
Cohen explains that the trend toward flexible part-time work with nonprofits is especially pronounced for communications jobs. “For many, it’s an ideal fit, because nonprofits often don’t have the financial resources to bring on ideally all of the full-time staff they would have, especially in the communications area.” If these organizations had more money, it would be more likely to go to programs rather than communications, so they sorely need people with comms skills who aren’t looking for a full commitment.
As explained in a previous AWP Careers Advice article, communications roles can be varied. A natural fit for a freelance writer could include working on a university or charity’s magazine or newsletter, or acting as a press officer to stimulate coverage of the organization’s activities.
An annual report is also a good example. A nonprofit doesn’t have an ongoing need for support with preparing an annual report, as this would only occupy a few weeks or months each year. But as the flagship publication for many nonprofit organizations, this document is very important—and a key place for a freelance writer to shine. In general, storytelling and communications skills are hugely important for translating a nonprofit’s research and program activities into compelling information for people who may not be specialists.
It’s also useful to think more broadly. Digital communications are increasingly important for organizations of all types, so there’s a demand for writers who also know their way around social media, search engine optimization, content management systems, photography and other multimedia, and the differences between writing for print and the web.
Another area that may not seem initially appealing, but is crucial to the sustainability of any nonprofit, is fundraising. Grant writing, fundraising strategies, and donor relations all benefit from a person who can turn numbers into a narrative about why a particular organization’s work matters.
And then there are more strategic roles, for instance in rebranding and audience engagement. High-level positions like a director of communications may not be open to a part-timer, but a number of nonprofits have short-term or one-off needs: for instance for a reframing of their message or preparation of style guidelines. This could be a perfect opportunity for a freelance writer who’s in between writing assignments.
Things aren’t all rosy, however. There’s no getting around the fact that nonprofit salaries tend to be lower than corporate ones. But sometimes this perception of nonprofits can be exaggerated. Cohen notes, “Many people think that you’ve got to take a vow of poverty to work with them,” although that’s not always the case. Organizations that are large, well-established, and handsomely endowed can pay quite competitively. The employee website Glassdoor, for instance, reports that communications officer salaries at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (one of the most influential philanthropic organizations working in global health and poverty reduction) are in the range of approx. $89,000–117,000 annually. Short-term editorial consultancies with United Nations agencies can also pay surprisingly well.
But for every massive private foundation like Gates, there are plenty smaller, underfunded charities whose greatest assets aren’t their endowments, but their staff. So a freelancer working with an organization like this may need to get used to working with an organization that relies on volunteers, trustees, and unpredictable funding. Resources are likely to be limited. And one common complaint of people who have worked in both nonprofit and corporate settings is that the pace of nonprofit work can seem slow and inefficient, with less funding to allocate to IT and administrative systems, for instance.
But this can be an opportunity in its own right for someone looking for more responsibility or a chance to dip their toes into different areas of work. Under-resourced organizations are often grateful for someone like this.
And of course there’s a trade-off for the flexible workplace culture of so many nonprofits. Dayton says that for her, for instance, “That flexibility, along with the dependable check every two weeks, made it worth the lower salary.”
Something else to guard against is conflict of interest. Especially when a writer covers similar topics to an organization they work for, the neutrality of their freelance writing could be called into question. (This also applies to writers who work part-time in public relations roles.) Dayton gives an example: “I write a lot of outdoor/environmental stuff so I wouldn’t want to work for a wilderness advocacy nonprofit. I don’t think most publications would want me covering the same issues the nonprofit advocates for and I’d have to consider if my employer (the nonprofit) would have any restrictions on stuff I could write.”
To take another example, medical writers might need to tread carefully if combining freelance writing with work for a patient advocacy group. But if they mainly write about cardiac medicine, and their organization is devoted to communicable diseases, uncomfortable overlap can be avoided.
How Freelance Writers Can Optimize Part-Time Nonprofit Work
Brown makes the good point that “if you’re a part-timer, they’re less likely to want to spend time and money training you.” So one way for a part-time employee to stand out is by learning key software and skills in demand across many nonprofits. She suggests bulk email systems like MailChimp and Campaigner, as well as the fundraising tool Raiser’s Edge.
This might ultimately be beneficial for writers in their freelance careers. Knowing how to set up an organizational newsletter emailed to hundreds or thousands of people, for instance, would also be useful for administering a writer’s newsletter to inform friends and clients of recent publications.
Cohen, meanwhile, recommends taking a look at what the organization is doing already. A freelance writer might notice, for instance, that a membership magazine would benefit from punchier articles, or that slideshows could use sharper photos. It’s not recommended to openly criticize what a nonprofit is doing with its limited budget, but there are opportunities for freelancers to make constructive suggestions and demonstrate that they really know the organization.
Apart from software and multimedia, one core skill, both in freelance writing and in nonprofit work, is relationship-building. Just as a magazine editor comes to trust a freelancer who consistently delivers clean copy on deadline, a publication manager at a nonprofit doesn’t want to waste valuable time on freelancers whose work may not pan out. So writers who can make themselves available in certain periods (e.g. always in the month of a big donor push or before the printer’s deadline for an annual report) are making that manager’s job easier.
Building these relationships makes it easier to renegotiate the terms of work to accommodate a changing freelance career, as Brown did. When she moved from full-time to part-time at the teachers’ union, she knew that she wanted to keep working on newsletters for parents, something she really enjoyed. She was able to arrange this.
Drawing on her experience, Brown says: “If I were speaking to a full-timer at a non-profit looking to transition into freelancing, I’d suggest giving plenty of notice, being transparent about your reason for leaving, and voicing your appreciation for the experience you had working at the organization. Try to be available to train your replacement. And, when asking to stay on part-time, specify which projects you want to continue doing.”
Transparency is also a watchword of Cohen and the National Council of Nonprofits. Under-resourced organizations benefit from the fresh blood, new ideas, and useful skills that freelancers can bring. As he says, “working with freelancers … really helps the non-profit, in that they’re able to work with really very talented, very qualified people they wouldn’t be able to bring on full-time.” In his own experience, he’s seen plenty of freelancers who have a talent for picking things up quickly when starting work at a nonprofit. After all, freelance writers who are accustomed to dealing with varied editors, styles, and tones have proven adept at adjusting their writing styles as needed.
At the same time, Cohen acknowledges that some recruiters may be wary about hiring freelancers who have bounced around from project to project. He suggests that applicants address this head-on, by mentioning in their cover letters why there are lots of short-term stints in their résumés. For instance, those assignments might have had clearly defined, short contractual periods.
Applicants can also sell this variety of experiences. “If you’re looking for someone who’s able to solve problems and bring different viewpoints to a particular situation, sometimes having worked with several organizations” is a benefit, Cohen comments.
Another potential worry of employers is that a part-timer who freelances might get easily diverted to freelance work, leaving the organization high and dry. So, Cohen says, “It’s important to manage expectations and to document them into agreements for the part-time position.” The freelancer could stipulate that the nonprofit takes precedence at certain crucial times of the year, or the organization could set out in the contract that as long as a set number of hours is worked per week, it doesn’t matter how many hours the employee logs each day.
Dayton was lucky that her boss mentioned workplace flexibility before she needed to. But her case also shows the importance of being upfront and direct, on both sides, to ensure that the relationship between a freelance writer and a nonprofit organization is a satisfying—and possibly long-lived—one.
Resources for Learning More about Nonprofit Organizations
Charity Navigator: https://www.charitynavigator.org
National Council for Voluntary Organisations (U.K.): https://www.ncvo.org.uk
The Guardian Voluntary Sector Network: https://www.theguardian.com/voluntary-sector-network
Resources for Learning More about Nonprofit Work
Resources for Learning More about Charity Communications
Christine Ro lives in London and writes for publications including the BBC and Literary Hub.