Freelancers and Volunteering: Waste of Time or Valuable Marketing Strategy?

Some freelancers swear by volunteering as a way to start getting paying clients. On the other hand, some freelancers say volunteering has been a huge waste of time, that they felt taken advantage of, and had nothing to show for it.

As with most things, volunteering can be good or bad. It depends on how you do it.

Advantages of Volunteering

Here are some ways volunteering can help new freelancers to get started and established freelancers to expand.

  • Apply skills in the real world. Freelancing will let you take the skills you learned in school or through training programs and apply them in the real world. In fact, even established freelancers can use volunteering to get into a new niche or expand to other services.
  • Beef up your portfolio. By volunteering, you can populate your portfolio and clients list, even if you’ve never had a paying client before.
  • Prove you can get results. Aside from having work samples, you’ll also have documented results based on your volunteer work. For example, let’s say you designed a fund-raising direct mail letter for a charity. How much money did that mailer raise? You can use that in your resume and look like a superstar.
  • Get testimonials or references. Assuming you keep your clients happy, whether paying or not, then volunteering is great for getting testimonials or references.
  • Get referrals. If you do good volunteer work, then the people you volunteer for would only be too happy to pass the word around to people they know.
  • Build your network. Freelancers who are just starting out usually have very limited networks. Volunteering will help you build that network, which will continue to be valuable throughout your freelancing career.
  • Do good. Volunteering is valuable and rewarding in and of itself. It feels good to help others and know you’re contributing to the community. You’ll also reap plenty of goodwill along the way.

How to Make Volunteering Work for You

How can you make sure you reap as many of the rewards of volunteering as you can? Here are some tips to make the most of volunteering:

  1. Be picky about what you do as a volunteer. Not every volunteering activity is going to contribute to your freelancing career. Choose those that allow you to use the skills you’re promoting as a freelancer.
  2. Make expectations clear. Ask the organization to put clearly, in writing, what the organization expects from you: what your deliverables are, what quality is expected, and by when. That said, your own expectations should also be clear. In your application letter, be forthright that you expect a testimonial or feedback in writing, after your work is completed, and if they are happy with it. After your volunteering stint, thank the organization for the opportunity and say something like, “I would appreciate it if you could refer me to business owners you know who could use my services.” Read this post for more advice on how to ask for referrals.
  3. Document your volunteer work. Get permission to keep samples of your work for your portfolio and to use the organization’s name in your resume. If applicable, ask for information that will demonstrate what results the organization got from your work. Results could include lead generation and sales. However, don’t forget the amount of money they saved by not hiring somebody to do the work, or the time they saved by not doing the work themselves.

In Your Words

Volunteering can be a valuable tool for freelancers to develop their skills and promote their services.

What are your experiences in volunteering? Did it help your freelancing business in any way? Or was it a waste of time and effort?

Please share in the comments below.

Image by San Jose Library