Going freelance for the voluntary sector: what I’ve learned

Furlough, job cuts, funding insecurity and sustained economic disruption: a lot of people are going to end up as freelancers over the next few months. Some people will lose jobs and others will quit as the promise of transformation gives way to a painful backwards retrenchment and they realise if change won’t happen now, it never will.

Feeling pushed out isn’t easy, whatever the reason. Your ego will have a lot to say about it and the coming months you’ll need to have the energy to nurse that while also finding the  forward propulsion to forge a new career. Don’t be too hard on yourself as you find a way to strike a balance.

Personally, I fell into freelancing because being an employee had become unbearable. Too much of my energy was sucked up in politicking and battling – both of which I’m bad at – at the loss of all the things I’m good at. I never doubted I had much to offer but I knew I wasn’t making the difference I should.

Despite coming from a family of freelancers I had always dismissed it as too unknowable, and myself as unqualified. I had visions of freelancers rattling behind them a trail of MBAs and early morning interest in Agile Sprints and GANTT charts. A two day meeting with McKinsey a decade ago had left a permanent impression of the kind of people who are consultants and it wasn’t me.

I didn’t know where to begin freelancing and I hadn’t planned it. Having not been employed in the voluntary sector for five years I had considerable anxiety that everyone had forgotten me; and even if they hadn’t, how do you make yourself known again? Jump out of someone’s birthday cake?

The thought of selling myself felt horrible. I am not a marketer (as I expect many people in the voluntary sector are not. We sell ideas and principles, not ourselves). Two former bosses asked what my elevator pitch was. ‘You both know me!’, I cried. Surely that is enough?

And actually, it is.

Being yourself is the great, secret joy of freelancing. Often as I’m pedalling off to a client or the (now closed) British Library I think to myself, no one is ruining my day. You’re hired by people that like your brain and your attitude and have given you a mandate to use your strengths to change and challenge them. I’m not saying its always easy, but its definitely easy far more of the time. You’ll hit misunderstandings, learn the need for repetition and the risk of nuance. Sometimes you’ll propose a step too far and have to rewind: but always I feel like I know why I’m here.

Stepping out of an institution your work develops its own rhythm. A virtuous cycle forms where good work leads to more good work. You become your own mistress and with that the anxious ego of the first few months gives way to a deep revolution in confidence.

Not that it is all easy, and I say all this from the vantage point of a slew of privileges. Also, the next 24 months are unknowable for all of us. Freelancing is a path that takes a lot of faith (but if you’re ever going to believe in anything in life, it may as well be yourself).

My own business plan for the next 9 months consists of (a) cutting all my spending and (b) a karmic belief that in working for free or next to nothing, some pay will emerge at some point. That’s probably not the most assured approach but it feels right for me and I feel for the first time that my approach to work is entirely in accordance with my values.

If you do go freelance, I wish you well. Find company, seek advice, have other freelancers to share stories with. After all, if you follow your instincts, what can possibly go wrong?