It might be counterintuitive to pitch to nonprofits given the misconception that they have no money. But in reality, nonprofit revenue can exceed that of many small businesses.
Why pursue nonprofits as a client?
Nonprofits have similar backend office processes as corporations—including HR, legal, administrative, and technology. The hard skills you use in a corporate setting translate easily to a nonprofit setting.
Nonprofits also have 2 unique needs—fundraising and grant writing. Before engaging in these services, be aware that some states have specific legal requirements that include registration. The National Association of State Charity Officials lists state websites as a starting place to check for regulations.
A nonprofit may hire you on a per-project basis (e.g., to implement a new donor system) or they may hire you on retainer (e.g., to review legal documents when needed). While you may be contracted as a generalist to provide staffing support, it’s more likely a nonprofit will use you as a specialist to fulfill a specific need.
So how do you choose a nonprofit to work with? Similar to your corporate clients, you’ll need to both search for them and market yourself so they can find you.
Put together a top 10 list of nonprofits to target. Keep in mind nonprofits include more than the 501(c)(3) animal charity you donate to every December. There are over 20 types of nonprofit designations, including churches, credit unions, and chambers of commerce.
Refine that list to include only nonprofits that have large revenues and good ratings. You can find that information on any of the 3 major charity review sites: Charity Watch, Charity Navigator, and GuideStar.
A high-revenue nonprofit is more likely to be a repeat client for you. And if the organization has a good rating, that suggests they are financially efficient. To a freelancer, that implies they can pay their rent and your bill in the same month. Unfortunately, each charity reviewer grades on a different scale. It’s not uncommon for a nonprofit to receive 4 stars from one reviewer and an F grade from another. If that happens, consider skipping that nonprofit in favor of one that has a good rating across all the charity reviewer sites.
Join professional associations to gain insight into what nonprofits need and provide networking opportunities. Beef-up your resume to show you are serious about working with nonprofits. As a bonus, some of the associations have job boards to search and profiles you can set up (like a LinkedIn profile) to advertise your services.
Nonprofit professional associations to consider include:
Freelancing in the nonprofit sector requires the same self-promotion you’d do to secure a for-profit client. Plan to market yourself aggressively, especially at the beginning of your nonprofit freelance career. Network every chance you get and ensure your resume and sales pitch meet the guidelines that nonprofits may use to hire a freelancer.
There are a few things to be aware of when working with a nonprofit, including having a contract and understanding how the Board of Directors and volunteers could impact you.
Get a contract that includes the scope of work and rates. Just like in the corporate world, anything that isn’t in writing could cause you trouble down the road. Be leery of volunteering your services at any point (before or during the project), as it can be harder to convince the nonprofit to pay for similar services in the future.
Make sure the contract has work-specific verbiage. For example, if you are providing technical implementation, who opens service tickets with the 3rd-party vendor? Be sure to cover who handles what duties, including deadlines for completion by the client. You don’t want to delay invoicing because the board has to approve your work and they only meet in January.
Ensure the nonprofit has an active Board of Directors. IRS regulations require a board, but if the board is silent or inactive, make sure you know who the real decision-makers are. Without a strong board, decisions that impact your work may be made on a whim by the squeakiest wheel of the day. As a freelancer trying to meet deadlines, this can be a frustrating experience.
If volunteers are part of your work team, expect some timing delays. Most volunteers are enthusiastic helpers but have limited time to interact—they may only be able to assist after 9pm, which can impact your timelines.
Nonprofits have business needs, money to spend, and not enough in-house hands or expertise to do it all. With a bit of work, you can tap into this overlooked source of clients for your freelance business.