How To Land That Non-Profit Writing Job

While at Write! Toronto, a number of people asked me about my freelance writing for non-profits. I felt that I didn’t really answer your questions very well. So I took your questions to two men who have experience hiring freelancers for Canadian faith-based non-profits. Between them they offer a well-rounded perspective. Enjoy!

Philip Maher is the Communications Director at Christian Children’s Fund in Markham, Ontario.

Gary Roebbelen is the Director of Fund Development for TWR Canada and has worked in fundraising and communications at World Vision Canada, World Vision USA, Samaritan’s Purse, Teen Challenge Inc., and others, and has been published in Time Magazine.

LW: What kinds of writing do you assign a contract freelance writer?

Philip: Contract writers get hired to do the work staff don’t want to do, or don’t have time to do. Freelancers may be hired to write appeals, or to provide expertise or experience an organization doesn’t have in-house. Writing to solicit donations is an art. This is a huge well-paid market.

Gary: “Having a trusted freelancer available to enhance communications capacity can be valuable. This requires a high degree of flexibility and availability. The individual freelancer can find success developing feature stories on critical issues that powerfully portray the life-changing success of an organization’s programs. Freelancers can also develop features that have an edge of controversy on social issues the non-profit is engaged in.

Social networking and blogging 24×7 can also be a helpful resource for organizations with an online presence and expanding e-philanthropy plans. One area of specialty frequently desired by non-profits is the research and writing of grant and foundation proposals.”

LW: What qualities are employers looking for in a freelance contract writer?

Philip: A really good writer. There is a huge difference between enjoying the art of writing and being able to write. I’d suggest that many, many freelancers who know grammar, and love writing, are not good writers. Of course you should know grammar and you should love to write, but you need to be good at it. Writing is hard work.”

Gary: “I look for someone willing to absorb and learn the culture and vocabulary of the organization; who is a good listener, and can echo back the ethos and position of the mission and purpose of an organization.

In the faith community freelancers often need to appeal to a specific demographic and the established support base. This means not just being a ‘Christian’ writer, but being a Catholic writer, or an evangelical writer, or Baptist, Southern Baptist, United, Lutheran, ecumenical, etc.  Yes, writers should be able to write to many audiences, but I think it’s more important to be sensitive to the culture and do excellent work. Stephen King is an OK writer, but he might have trouble getting hired to write scripts for Focus on the Family’s Adventures in Odyssey (“Eugene! What are you doing with that axe… Eugene! NOOOOOOOO…”).”

LW: What skills/qualifications/experience do you see as valuable when hiring a contract writer?

Philip: “We’d value a person who can delicately craft a finely tuned, witty and succinct message. A person I want is a person who is filled with new ideas. My experience is that often the best writers are the ones who have good ideas. They are creative. Have some expertise in a subject and it will enhance your chances.”

Gary: “I cannot over emphasize the absolute necessity of having solid proofreading skills and a commitment to 100% accuracy in all of your work. Even one typo or grammatical faux pas will jump off the page.

Another area of value is to show that you are already published, with small or large work, of almost any content. There needs to be confidence that the freelancer takes their craft seriously enough to pursue being published. For some writers, the dramatic story content provided within a non-profit organization will produce a freelancer’s best work. It’s very valuable to have a freelancer who already knows how to get their work read.

I think formal education is only important if it is a HR standard requirement for a certain position (easy practical triage for employers). I think a portfolio of good work and an ongoing interest and commitment to continuing education (participating in associations, guilds, and workshops) is more important.”

LW: What advice would you give someone looking to get into writing for non-profits?

Philip: “Very, very few writers can live off working for non-profits. For the most part, you cannot support yourself doing this unless you have some other skill, or this is a part time job. My absolute best advice is to have something that goes with the skill of writing. Very few people seem to want to do, or care about, media relations for example. Become an expert and then show prospective employers your background in a particular issue: finance, politics, overseas development, women’s issues, AIDS. Organizations are often looking for ghost writers for their CEO’s. If you have an area of expertise, on development, CIDA and faith based charities, someone might want that expertise to write an op-ed for their own magazine or for the Toronto Star.”

Gary: “Show you can tell the story in the public marketplace. Help tell the story in a local media outlet or respected online forum. You really don’t need to ask any permission. Find ‘safe’ issues that portray the distinctiveness and effectiveness of the non-profit’s work—but stay aligned with the organization’s mission.”

Hope you found that helpful! Did you have a question not answered here about landing contract work with non-profits? Or another question for the blog? Send it to us. Your question might be our next blog post.


**We’ve moved! Please join us at our new permanent homes. You can find Marcy at her website and Lisa at her website.


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