Freelancers raise rates for charity work

Sir James Dyson has been called by the Conservatives to chair a taskforce aimed at turning the UK into Europe’s leading exporter of hi-tech goods.

But the vacuum cleaner tycoon is not the only self-employed creative from the private sector sharing his ideas, contacts and leadership skills with a ‘non-profit’ group.

Architects, PR professionals, photographers and marketers are among the creatives who are using gaps in their freelance careers to work for the third sector.

Their reasons to work for charity varied – some had spare time to do a ‘good turn’, one said the cause was personal, while another said the role helped keep his portfolio up-to-date.

All of them hinted the downturn had dried up their supply of commercial work, and felt that their periods of inactivity would have been longer had they not engaged a charity.

Their work history and CV, once they are updated with the charity role, will signal to recruiters, clients and employers who read it that they possess a “get up and go” approach.

Even if the CV reader is unaware of the charity, a willingness to commit to lower pay, low pay or non-paid work, for a good cause, was also seen as standing their characters in good stead.

“From the freelancer’s point of view, doing some voluntary work may be particularly useful if they haven't secured work for a while, or have a fixed period in between assignments,” added Rona Levin, a PR & Communications freelance who has worked for charitable organisations.

“In effect, it helps them to update their CV and keep[s] their ‘hand in’ with industry contacts. They may also be in a position to network and hear of any paid opportunities within the sector.”

She said the most important aspect of freelancing for charity was for the freelancer to ensure that they could fully commit to either a period of time or to completing a one-off project.

Unlike commercial outfits, non-profits rarely have back-up staff, so a freelancer who pulls out half way through may jeopardise the project, while tarnishing their own reputation.

One senior design professional, new to freelancing and fresh from an agency, seemed alert to this danger last month, when she declined charity work, primarily for financial reasons.

But when a freelancer agrees to work for a charity, and doesn’t pull out half way through, the organisation benefits from having a worker who can ‘hit the ground running’.

In other words, the charity foregoes the cost of having to train the worker, providing the organisation with a cost saving and a near-immediate start on the project or task in hand.

Partly as a result, and in the light of donations to charities falling in the recession, non-profit organisations are currently showing no signs of slowing their appetite for freelancers.

Moreover, despite the downturn, freelancers themselves are still as willing as they were this time last year to give their services to charity, according to recruitment website People4Business.

In fact, the proportion of freelancers using the website to advertise their services to charity is the same today – 72 per cent – as it was before the recession started.

Compared with the discounts offered by all 11,000 of the site’s chartable freelancers, creatives’ rates are slightly more generous than the average, said People4Business’ founder Duncan Taylor.

Typically, freelancers using the network set a charity rate, and a commercial rate, before being entered in the results by charities searching by skills, price, location and availability.

Upon being short-listed, the freelancer can then decide if they wish to work for the charitable organisation, which Mr Taylor said could be Breast Cancer Care, The Salvation Army or the Institute of International Affairs.

But he explained it wasn’t all business as normal for charities wanting freelancers. Stung by the slower stream of commercial work, freelancers have cut their charity rates to compensate.

“The change we have noticed is that the discounts (on average) [for charities] have decreased,” Mr Taylor said.

“Previously the average discount was 14 per cent and this has now dropped to 9.8 per cent. The implication is that freelancers are just as willing to give a discount but, as they feel the economic pinch, this discount has been reduced to a figure more in line with what they feel they can afford.”

For being the most giving with their time and pay, management consultants, legal specialists and IT experts were the least likely candidates to have increased their charity rate significantly, in contrast to accountants, who were the least charitable.

Outside of such structured marketplaces, there is anecdotal evidence that the recession may have made freelancers’ more aware of the financial difficulties that non-profits encounter.

Tim O’Sullivan, a freelance photographer, said he had recently put paid work on the backburner to support a youth club in a fundraiser that was its only hope of staying in the community.

“I have worked many years in commercial photography,” he said, but now “realise that a little effort and enjoyment on my part could really make a difference” to the Isle of Man amateur boxing club.

And addressing a Charity Trustee Networks event, Jon Snow, the Channel 4 News presenter, recently said a youth project he was involved with was indebted to a freelance architect.

Pointing to the New Horizon Youth Centre in North West London, the presenter said of the freelance: “He didn't know he was a volunteer, but he comes in for about four minutes once a fortnight and it is like gold dust to us. He wouldn't want to talk to a young woman about how to get her off the game, but he is passionate about making buildings fit for purpose.”

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