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7 Tips for Success as a Fundraising Freelancer

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Wouldn’t it be great to be your own boss?

That’s how many people imagine it will be when they dream of becoming a freelancer. Including many professional fundraisers.

Let me give you the bad news first: When you become your own boss, you discover that you’re working for one of the worst bosses you’ve ever had!

If I haven’t scared you away from the idea, let’s look at what it takes to be a freelancer in fundraising.

The good news is that fundraising requires a lot of quality outsourced fundraising professionals. More than a lot of other professions. There is a real market for freelancers. It’s not just a pipe-dream for a tiny elite. There’s a living to be made if you have the goods that people are buying.

I’m going to show you what that means. I’m speaking from my perspective as a working freelancer who has been making a living at it for several years. Before that I was an active hirer of freelancers for decades. Having seen it from both sides, here’s my advice for doing well as a freelancer. I’m only going to talk here about the business of freelancing, not the profession you need to excel in. That’s what every single other post on this blog covers.

Don’t miss deadlines

This may seem like a discouraging thing to start with. You want to be a freelancer because you’re talented, experienced, and all-round amazing. All of that is necessary, the price of admission to the freelancing gig. 

But when you really get down to it, a freelancer’s main job is to remove pain from their clients’ lives.  

That means your work is good, done with little or no conflict or complication, and on time. I focus on the least interesting of those things because missing deadlines may not feel like a big deal, and when you work as an employee, colleagues learn to work around each other’s shortcomings — so if you miss a lot of deadlines, they eventually learn to give you fake deadlines that are earlier than the real ones.

If you’re freelancing and miss a deadline, you’ve just dumped a helping of pain right back onto your client’s desk. Your quality hardly matters at that point. You have failed at pain removal, which is job #1. And it’s super easy for them to let you go!

Missing deadlines is an inescapable fact of life. But as a freelancer, you need to get as close to never as you possibly can. 

Pay attention to money

Almost every ex-freelancer I know stopped because of money. And I don’t just mean not enough of it. I mean dealing with it in a way that’s far beyond what you do as an employee:

  • For some, invoicing is a huge (and costly) hassle. It doesn’t have to be. Get a good automated system for invoices. There are several on the market. And most of all, don’t fall behind!
  • Even if you keep up with invoicing, sometimes clients don’t pay. I have never had a client try to cheat me, but invoices do get lost in the shuffle. It’s up to you to follow up. It’s annoying and a pain, but it’s a reality.
  • Your taxes (in the US, anyway) are a lot more complicated. You probably should get professional help at filing to stay out of trouble. And don’t get behind with your quarterly estimated IRS payments. That can really hurt!

Charge what you’re worth

Too many freelancers badly under-charge. It’s usually because they fear charging high rates will limit their business. This might be a problem for someone, but I have not yet met a freelancer who suffered reverses because their rates were too high. In fact, I’ve never heard of a freelancer who regretted raising their rates.

Your work is incredibly valuable and a great deal for your clients. Get paid for the value you offer!

Be friends with the competition

Other freelancers working in the same space as you are your competitors. That doesn’t mean they’re your enemy. It’s better to think of them as colleagues. It’s easy to think of the potential work out there as a limited pie all the freelancers have to squabble over. In reality, the pie is so huge, you can get what you need — and so can they.

The only competitors I worry about are those who do lousy work and give outsourcing itself a bad reputation. 

Know your competitors, value them, and stay in touch. If you have a question, feel free to ask them. And be willing to help them out.

Fellow freelancers are among my best sources of new clients. And I frequently refer would-be clients to competitors. We really are better together!

Pro bono? No-no!

The free version of you is a competitor who can eat your lunch, breakfast and dinner and put you out of business! Why should anyone pay you if they can talk you into working for free?

Professionals of all types know that it’s not smart to do for free what you want to be paid for. When you do that, you undercut the value of your work — and that of all freelancers. Stranger yet, clients value your work commensurate to what they pay for it. Pro-bono clients are more likely to be difficult and uncooperative than clients.

Despite all that, I believe you can and should do pro-bono work for worthy organizations sometimes. It’s good for your soul. But only when you have a clear and strong connection with the client. Like you are a direct participant or board member. There must be a connection and/or relationship. Otherwise, it’s just a cheapskate org using you to be cheap.

Drop lousy clients

In addition to not burdening yourself with non-paying clients, do your best not to have lousy clients, even paying ones. Let me define “lousy”:

  • They are rude and unpleasant to work with.
  • They routinely reject your advice against your best warnings. (And these types often then blame you for subsequent failure.)
  • They are sloppy in ways that cause problems.
  • They are bad at paying your invoices and frequently dispute charges in unfair ways.

Don’t have too much of a hair-trigger about firing clients. Do your best to help them improve. And there may be times you have to put up with poor behavior until you can replace the work. But life is too precious to waste it on needless pain and unpleasantness. It’s not your job to cover over an organization’s dysfunction.

Keep learning

Part of your value to your clients is your knowledge. Don’t let it get stale. Be a studious consumer of blogs, books, conferences, and relationships with others in the business. This is a cost of staying in business. 

Are you ready yet?

When I was a hirer of freelancers, I’d occasionally get into a conversation with a young person who was trying to launch a freelance career. Because I needed the absolute best. I needed freelancers I could count on to do top-quality work fast, without creating hassles or missing details. The first time out. This frustrated them, leading to the embarrassing situation where they’d accuse me of standing in the way of their dreams.

Your dreams aren’t your clients’ concerns. Your ability to deliver great work and accomplish their objectives are all that matter. You may be super talented, but until you can prove your worth to potential clients, you are likely to struggle. Freelancing is not an entry-level job! It’s basically a trapeze act without a net.

You’ll do much better by starting out with a “real job” where you can learn, succeed, fail, and grow in community. Talent, work ethic and having a dream are important, but on top of that, you need a lot of knowledge and relevant experience and a reputation that people can trust. That takes years. It’s really the only way to prepare yourself for working without a net. 

About being your own boss

Remember what I said about you being the worst boss you’ll ever have? It’s true. As a freelancer, you will give yourself unreasonable workloads. You’ll have to pay for your own equipment and training. If (when) things go wrong, you’ll get the blame. You-as-boss will not give you time off, even if you’re sick. Paid vacation time? Hah! You have to pay for everything. It’s totally unreasonable conditions that you wouldn’t put up with at a normal workplace. Seriously, freelancing is not for everyone. It’s probably not for most people.

But working for that crummy task-master of a boss is an entirely different deal than a “real job” with a real boss. I absolutely love it every day, and my only regret is that I didn’t start sooner. If you can make the finances work and all the other stuff gives you more joy than pain … freelancing is a wonderful life!

Want help succeeding at the art of fundraising? Find your way forward by scheduling a free 25-minute call with one of our Fundraisingologists. They will give you great free advice, and help you identify which Coaching+ program might be right for you. Click here to book your call.

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    Jeff Brooks is a Fundraisingologist at Moceanic. He has more than 30 years of experience in fundraising, and has worked as a writer and creative director on behalf of top nonprofits around the world, including CARE, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Feeding America, and many others.

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1 Comment. Leave new

  • Nicki Sayers
    March 15, 2022 7:46 am

    Wise words Jeff, and extremely timely for me as I started my freelance career on 14 March! Pay attention to money certainly rang true. With nearly 20 year’s experience I’m confident in my abilities as a prospect researcher and fundraiser but it’s the business side that terrifies me the most. Get an accountant and an accounting package from the get go.

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