Profitable Freelance Writing for Nonprofits

by John Soares on March 27, 2013

Many freelance writers don’t give much thought to writing for nonprofit organizations, but some nonprofits pay writers quite well. Here’s my story…

Freelance Writing for a Higher Education Nonprofit

I’m primarily a higher education writer. I create various materials for college-level textbooks and courses, typically test questions, instructor’s manuals, lecture outlines, student study guides, and the like. If this interests you, check out my Writing College Textbook Supplements e-book (and the clickable cover is in the side column to the right).

I recently completed a textbook supplement project – test questions and an instructor’s manual — for a nonprofit organization.

The Nonprofit Found My Higher Education Writer Website Through a Google Search

This points out the importance of learning and applying good SEO principles for blog posts and websites.

This nonprofit is involved with training scientists in research techniques that will help them do better research and win more grant money.

The Nonprofit Asked Me to Bid on the Project

They said they had two other writers under consideration.

I asked for sample chapters of the book they had created to train researchers, along with details of exactly what they wanted in terms of numbers and types of questions (they wanted multiple-choice questions and essay questions) and the specifics of what should be in the instructor’s manual.

I computed how long it would take to do the project and then created a bid based on my desired hourly rate. They accepted my bid and we were off and rolling.

The Contract Had a Nondisclosure Clause

These are common in many of the higher education contracts I sign, so I can’t tell you the specific nonprofit or the details of the subject matter and work.

It Was Steady Work and Income for Nearly a Year

It was an on-going part-time project that paid about $1000 per month for about ten months. I like knowing I have some steady work, which is uncommon for many freelance writers.

It Paid Quite Well

I made about 80-100 bucks an hour. I’ve heard that some nonprofits have limited budgets and pay less than for-profit businesses, but that was not the case here.

Payment Was Prompt

In fact, it’s far faster than the 4-8 weeks most higher education companies take to cut and send a check. I was paid within two weeks of submitting an invoice.

What Types of Writing Do Nonprofits Need?

The answer: they need all types of writing. It’s best to think of nonprofits as businesses. Any type of writing a business could need is also fair game. Examples:

  • Press releases
  • Newsletters, print and electronic
  • Sales letters
  • Website copy
  • Blog posts
  • Case studies
  • Brochures

Freelance writer Alan Kravitz specializes in creating content for nonprofits. He says you should avoid small local charities if you want to make big bucks, and instead focus on large charities in the million-dollar-plus donation range. (See Charity Navigator for details on specific nonprofits.)

Should You Write for Free for a Nonprofit?

I say yes. I was on the board of directors of the Mount Shasta Trail Association for six years and I did a lot of writing for the organization, all of it for free. Of course, I’m a dedicated hiker (and hiking guide writer) and I lived in the Mount Shasta area before moving to Ashland, Oregon.

Here are guidelines for writing for nonprofits pro bono:

Write for a Good Cause

Make sure you truly support the organization’s goals. Otherwise you’ll feel uncomfortable and you won’t enjoy the process.

Write Only as Much As You Are Comfortable Writing

Be firm and put limits on the amount of writing you’re willing to do for free.

Don’t Feel Pressured

Some nonprofits may push you to do work for free you’re not comfortable doing, perhaps with a promise of a good reference or some other way of promoting your work. Follow your gut: don’t do it if it doesn’t feel right.

Your Take

Have you written for nonprofit organizations, either for free or for pay? What was your experience? Any advice for us?

Freelance writers who specialize make much more money than those who don't. My short and focused course Find Your Freelance Writing Niches: Make More Money for Less Work guides you through all the key steps you need to take to discover the specialties that will take your freelance writing income to a much higher level. Click here for all the details.

{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Luana Spinetti | WritersMind.eu March 27, 2013 at 4:42 AM

Hey John!

I just recently wrote a post for my blog on “free writing” opportunities and which ones we should avoid at all costs. Noprofits who push your limits are a big no-no, but writing pro bono is a good thing when it doesn’t harm a writer’s business and health.

So far, my pro bono work has had writing as preliminary phase, not as a final product; I draw cartoons and comic strips and I write their storyboards. I had to pause my contribution to one of these noprofits to have more time for my business sites, but I told them I would be back. Another noprofit is waiting for me to have more free time on my hands to write for their newsletter once every few months, or when I have a good idea for them anyway. Honestly, I look forward to that. :)

The noprofit world is interesting and I’m exploring more of it.

Great success story here, John! Thank you for sharing.

~ Luana S.
Luana Spinetti | WritersMind.eu recently posted…8 Questions You Should Ask Yourself Before You Accept To Write For FREE

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2 John Soares March 27, 2013 at 6:43 AM

Luana, you raise an important point about how pro bono work for a nonprofit can take time away from paying writing projects. I know there were times this happened to me. It’s important to set boundaries!

And you make some very good points in your blog post.
John Soares recently posted…Top 10 Ways to Be a More Productive Freelance Writer

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3 Cathy Miller March 27, 2013 at 5:43 AM

Unfortunately, my experience with a nonprofit was not a good one. My 1st mistake was taking on a start up. The founder was passionate about the cause and couldn’t understand why I wouldn’t donate my services for the greater good.

I did receive payment for some small projects, but had to walk away as it was clear they were not in a position to pay my fees. I wished them success, and learned a valuable lesson.
Cathy Miller recently posted…Is Your Business Communication on Track?

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4 John Soares March 27, 2013 at 6:50 AM

Cathy, I can see how that could definitely be a problem with nonprofits, especially the smaller ones.

Your experience illustrates the importance of good contracts and good communication. You were smart to walk.
John Soares recently posted…The 8 Top Ways to Legally Lower Your Freelance Writer Tax Bill

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5 Sarah Russell March 27, 2013 at 6:17 AM

Interesting stuff. I haven’t worked with nonprofits before, but it’s something I’d like to get into in the future to give back to causes I care about (whether in a free or paid capacity). Definitely appreciate the tips on how to keep this type of work in check or even make a profit on it!

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6 John Soares March 27, 2013 at 6:54 AM

Sarah, local nonprofits are often the most receptive to pro bono work from writers. You also have the added bonus of networking with local people who can potentially send other business your way.
John Soares recently posted…Why and How Successful Freelance Writers Set Goals

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7 Anne Wayman March 27, 2013 at 2:52 PM

I’ve had good luck and good pay from nonprofits and have turned down not-for-profits who insisted I write for free or close to it because they were doing good.

Like you, I occasionally will do pro bono work but I won’t do it because ‘they’ think I should.

Thanks, John.
Anne Wayman recently posted…Colons and Semicolons: A Tutorial – Grammar & Usage

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8 John Soares March 28, 2013 at 6:17 AM

I rarely pitch my services to nonprofits, but they definitely can be a source of good business.
John Soares recently posted…Hey Freelance Writer, How Do You Respond When An Editor Asks for Changes?

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9 Flora Morris Brown March 27, 2013 at 10:33 PM

Hi John,

This is an encouraging post because I wouldn’t have given much consideration to nonprofits. Your good experience shows that it’s possible to enjoy good income and timely payments if we ask the right questions and set out fees accordingly.

I haven’t written for nonprofits, but look forward to exploring them now, maybe even doing some pro bono work under the right circumstances.

Thanks.
Flora Morris Brown recently posted…How to Conquer Your Fear of Screwing Up the Book You Want to Write, Part I

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10 John Soares March 28, 2013 at 6:20 AM

Flora, just be sure the nonprofits have significant budgets, as most larger ones do, but keep in mind that even smaller nonprofits can occasionally get a big grant.
John Soares recently posted…Why I Did Not Help a Fellow Freelance Writer

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11 Greg March 28, 2013 at 2:07 PM

Hi John:
Another point to consider might be that writing for a non-profit for free may be a form of charity/expense that could be used as a tax deduction. I am not a tax expert but it seems reasonable to me.

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12 John Soares March 28, 2013 at 2:24 PM

Greg, that’s an interesting idea.

Do we have any tax experts that can give a definitive answer?
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13 Sarah L. Webb April 2, 2013 at 6:58 AM

I’d love to write for nonprofits. At my core, it’s the kind of content I naturally want to write about anyway, so to get paid for it would be GREAT. Kravitz gave good advice. I think people shy away from nonprofits because they think about the small, local orgs that struggle to get funding. But nationally or internationally established nonprofits still need writers at the local level.
Sarah L. Webb recently posted…6 Lessons Facebook Taught Me About Courageous Content

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14 John Soares May 27, 2013 at 8:16 AM

Sarah, I totally agree about writing for the big nonprofits. Many pay very well.
John Soares recently posted…How Being Late Hurts Your Freelance Writing Career and Your Life

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15 Madras Geek April 2, 2013 at 7:35 AM

Great post! This really helps others.

I have been approached by few non-profit guys in the past. I remember it now :) good write up!
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16 Deevra Norling April 23, 2013 at 11:44 AM

Love this article. I am not limiting my services to non-profits, but I am creating a special focus on non-profits as my USP (unique selling proposition). I decided to highlight this as a service because I spent six years working in the non-profit sector and feel I am in a good position to assist them with funding proposals, appeal letters, donor reports and so on. So I am basically using my experience in the non-profit sector as leverage to hopefully gain some clients in that area.

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17 John Soares May 27, 2013 at 8:15 AM

People who focus on writing for nonprofits can make good money Deevra. You have a strong background, which should help you be successful.
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18 Elizabeth Pagel-Hogan May 23, 2013 at 11:58 AM

Hi John – I’ve had the most experience working with non-profits in my career, from full-time work, to consulting, to writing and teaching. I love the passion that is needed to keep most non-profits moving ahead. I love the creativity, but I don’t love the often under-resourced/overworked staff. Have you ever had a client (as I have) ask you to contribute in ways that exceeded what was set forth in your contract? Have they ever blurred the line between volunteering & paid work?
Elizabeth Pagel-Hogan recently posted…Homework for Writers: Writer’s Digest January 2011

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19 John Soares May 27, 2013 at 8:13 AM

Elizabeth, you have far more experience writing for nonprofits than I have. I have done significant volunteer work with nonprofits in a variety of roles (not just limited to writing), so I know that staff and volunteers can definitely be overworked.
John Soares recently posted…Top 10 Ways to Be a More Productive Freelance Writer

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20 Edwin August 16, 2013 at 10:32 AM

I just closed a non-profit as a client. It not only is good work, but rewarding as well. I get to help inspired people. This is a great gig for a content marketer and/or copywriter.
Edwin recently posted…9 Actions That Will Free Your Mind And Change Your Life

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21 John Soares August 16, 2013 at 1:29 PM

Congratulations Edwin. I hope the work goes very well.
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