As a woman who pays her bills with actual money and not goodwill, I am hesitant to recommend volunteering as a way of breaking into the business as a freelance writer. But, as a woman who believes that good things happen when people stop being selfish, part of me also wants to urge you to volunteer your writing services because words have the power to make the world a better place.

I guess I’m a little conflicted.

I firmly believe that all work should be adequately compensated, and that you should never feel guilty about earning a fair wage for your labor. Yes, even if you enjoy writing.

Nonetheless I understand that volunteering can help you gain the confidence of potential clients and make it possible for you to start or enhance your portfolio. I also understand that like the teenager lectured on the wonders of abstinence, many new writers will be so eager to pen anything at all they’ll volunteer anyway. So let me say this: if you’re going to be a volunteer, at the very least protect yourself.

I offer you two rules to live by.

Always Volunteer on Your Terms

Let me tell you a little story. Last September a local business owner found me on a search for Indianapolis freelance writers. He emailed me about his pet project, he left comments on my blog about it, and he left posts on my Facebook page begging me to write a story about his non-profit (which, by the way, seemed a whole lot like a for-profit to me to me). Anyway, his “non-profit” was so awesome and had such a fantastic mission that he was sure I’d want to write about it for free.

I assure you, I didn’t. So I emailed him back, saying:

Thanks for getting in touch. I’m sorry, but at this time I am unable to take on another project. As you may have seen on my website, I’m running Writers’ Week along with a writing contest and working diligently to maintain the Suess’s Pieces blog. I also work a full-time day job and freelance part-time for other clients. And at some point I just have to say no. Not because I don’t like helping out, but because there just isn’t enough time in the day.

See how I was trying to be diplomatic?

Honestly, if he’d taken two minutes to read a couple of my blog posts, he’d have probably realized that his mission and my personal convictions were a mismatch at best. But he didn’t. He just kept harassing me.

Truth be told, maybe I was overly diplomatic with my email response, because he didn’t let up. He left me another comment, and I reminded him about how I’d already said no. I ended up revoking his permissions to make posts on my Facebook page. It got that bad.

The point is, don’t ever let someone badger you into writing for free. And permanently blacklist anyone that doesn’t respect you the first time you say no. Writing on a volunteer basis requires mutual respect. That’s why I recommend you proactively volunteer for causes that interest you. If someone comes to you asking for free copy, odds are his expectations aren’t anywhere close to reasonable.

Make Sure the Project is a Good Match

You may love the organization you’ve volunteered to write for, but be wary of taking on work-for-free assignments if the assignment seems tedious to you or you’re unfamiliar and uncomfortable with the scope and responsibilities. Botch a project because you’re bored or incapable, and you might as well hand out a business card that says, “I produce mediocre work.”

When you express interest in writing for someone on a volunteer basis, use plenty of qualifiers. Be specific about how much time you can devote to the assignment and what jobs you are volunteering to help with.

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