8 Steps to Freelancing for the Greater Good
8 Steps to Freelancing for the Greater Good

So, you want to use your (professional) powers for good? You’re not alone. Most of us long for work that’s meaningful in some way.

Conveniently enough, you don’t have to switch to the nonprofit sector or become a full-time volunteer to do more good in the world (unless you want to, of course). Freelancing offers a great way to apply your professional skills to worthy causes and organizations that can use a hand.

It doesn’t matter if you’re a budding or seasoned solo worker or someone with a day job looking to beef up your portfolio, resume and LinkedIn connections. Freelancing for good is something anyone with a marketable skill can do.

Here are eight simple steps for finding and managing freelance projects that give back.

  1. Pick your pet causes.

    Choose one or two causes that most resonate with you, whether it’s helping refugees find housing or protecting our national parks. The more the cause speaks to you, the more you’ll enjoy the gig. And the more authentic you’ll appear to new clients interested in freelancers doing socially conscious work.

    Once you have a few of these projects under your belt, by all means, mention them on your website and in your portfolio. Include client testimonials and other evidence of the impact you made, too (more on this in step 8). After all, studies, like this one on Doing Well by Doing Good (PDF), show that people prefer to hire companies and service providers that do good in the world. And who knows? Using your freelance skills to help arts organizations raise funds or help the homeless get off the streets might become a new professional niche for you.

  2. Start local.

    You may have an easier time making inroads with the organizations and charities in your own backyard than those that are farther flung. When you work local, you can attend events hosted by organizations you’re interested in to meet the key players, ask local friends with contacts at those places to make introductions and ultimately meet with people from these organizations in person. Plus, you have a better chance of actually seeing the positive effects of your work.

    “As exciting as working with massive, international organizations is, often it’s a lot harder to see the impact that you created firsthand,” says Matthew Manos, founder of verynice, a design-strategy agency based in Los Angeles that donates 50 percent of its work to social impact causes. “With a smaller organization you have more influence. But more important, you’re helping your own community.”

  3. Set a price structure.

    When it comes to freelancing for good, there’s a balance to be struck between your desire to do good and your need to generate an income. That’s why setting a price structure is key.

    Are you going to work pro bono (aka, free of charge)? At a discounted rate? Or on a sliding scale? Pick what makes the most sense for your industry, schedule and desired annual income. Also determine how much pro bono or discounted work you can afford each quarter, be it four hours or 40. Establishing firm price and scheduling limits for yourself will help set boundaries and project parameters with clients you’re giving a deal to. It will also ensure you don't take on more pro bono or discounted clients than you can afford.

    Start small, perhaps donating one morning or day of work each month or quarter. If that’s beyond your ability, look for other, smaller ways to give back. Perhaps you can participate in a one-day hackathon building apps for social causes or host a free webinar that teaches nonprofits how to build a WordPress site or write a press release.

    “These things are less time intensive but still make big impacts,” Manos says. “Find the model that works best for you.”

  4. Treat pro bono or discounted work like paid work.

    There’s a tendency among freelancers and their clients to not take unpaid or sliding scale work as seriously as full-priced projects. This is a mistake that can lead to botched deadlines, sloppy work and shared frustrations.

    Better to create firm milestones and contracts so everyone knows what’s expected of them. Also send an invoice that mentions the full value of the work completed and how much you’ve credited the client for the project. That way, if the client recommends you to a colleague or has the budget to hire you in the future, they know what your time is worth.

  5. Work with for-profit companies for good.

    You don’t have to limit do-gooder work to nonprofit organizations. With the rise accountable businesses and social entrepreneurship, for-profit companies that bake mission-driven causes and giveback programs into their business models are legion. Some, like TOMS, make a donation for every product sold. Others, like Life is Good, donate a percentage of their proceeds to charity. Some focus on hiring veterans, minorities or people with autism. Others create products that benefit women and children in developing countries.

    Try looking into B Corporations — companies that go through a rigorous certification process to prove that they treat their employees, the environment and society like gold. Many of these companies donate a decent percentage of their earnings to charity, too. You can find hundreds of such companies at B Corporation online. Or look for companies with other admirable certifications, such as Fair Trade certification for farmed products like chocolate and coffee or Green Seal certification for environmentally sound products, services and facilities.

  6. Team up with agencies that give back.

    If you don’t have the time or inclination to seek out your own clients in need of discounted or free services, lend your skills and expertise to an organization already knee-deep in pro bono and discounted projects. For example, verynice has hired more than 500 designers, strategists and other freelancers to work on 1,500 pro bono projects over the past decade.

    There’s also the Taproot Foundation, based in Chicago, which has donated more than $152 million in pro bono marketing, design, technology, management and strategic planning services to date, much of which is done remotely by freelance teams. Plus, Catchafire, a New York–based organization, connects professionals with social enterprises in need of volunteers with various professional skills.

  7. Follow the money.

    Can’t afford to work at a reduced rate? Not to worry. Many large foundations and social service organizations pay workers competitively. In Seattle, think Casey Family Programs, Committee for Children and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Check out the social impact jobs site Idealist for job and volunteering listings, and poke around LinkedIn and your social media platform of choice for other ideas. Then see whether anyone you know works at an outfit you’re interested in.

    Also check whether your employer or corporate clients have a formal philanthropic or giveback program and find out if this is a department you can assist on a freelance basis. For instance, Microsoft’s Philanthropies group donates nearly $2 million in products and services to nonprofits each day. Undoubtedly a number of people are needed to work that daily magic.

  8. Measure the impact you make.

    Perhaps you created the video an organization used to raise $30,000 on Kickstarter. Or you helped build a mobile app used to attract thousands of new supporters to your pet political cause. Or your gratis work saved the client $10,000 throughout the year, which they instead spent on new computers.

    If you’re not sure what effect you work had on an organization or its mission, wait a few weeks after the project’s complete and then ask. Then update your portfolio and website accordingly.

    But don’t just use client feedback about the impact you’ve made to promote your professional skills. Apply the lessons you’ve learned to those organizations you decide to help in the future. That way, you’re doing far more than patting yourself on the back for a good deed — you’re maximizing the rewards reaped by causes you care about.


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Michelle Goodman

Guest writer Michelle Goodman is an award-winning journalist and author based in Seattle. Her books — The Anti 9-to-5 Guide and My So-Called Freelance Life — offer an irreverent twist on the traditional career guide. She specializes in writing about work, entrepreneurship and career change.

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