There’s a worrying trend among well-meaning fellow fundraisers and sector bloggers. I’ve seen many occasions where they’ve invited other fundraisers to write “guest posts” that are – explicitly – not paid opportunities.
I can already hear the chorus of people asking me “what’s the problem?” It’s unlikely that a blogger can afford to pay other writers, so much as they’d like to offer payment, what’s wrong with offering their platforms for other – often under-represented – voices?
I can think of several reasons.
It continues the expectation that writing shouldn’t be paid, which makes it much harder for freelance writers to make a living.
Many of us – myself included – have worked to raise awareness of the insidious problem of unpaid internships within the charity sector. The Institute of Fundraising’s Change Collective Manifesto (which I played a role in shaping as a member of the Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Panel) highlights the need to ban unpaid internships. This is a hugely positive step in the right direction.
Surely, if we accept that fundraising should be paid – including at entry level – we should also support the need to pay writers, regardless of their level of experience?
In the same way that unpaid internships have spread like a plague through the charity and arts sectors, writers’ wages are being consistently undercut. Sites such as Huffington Post, which relied for years on unpaid contributions (although it has recently decided to pay all writers) have made it harder and harder for full-time writers to earn a good living.
Social media is also to blame. After all, the entire industry model is based on monetising content that others create for free. One of the many reasons I decided to leave LinkedIn was due to the way their algorithm prioritises content created on their own platform. I would share links to my blog posts, but as these directed traffic away from LinkedIn, they were pushed down to the bottom of the hierarchy. I would have secured far more visibility if I had written my articles on LinkedIn. I wasn’t comfortable with that.
Next time you think about writing an article on LinkedIn, consider this. Are you really comfortable providing your free labour to a wealthy Silicon Valley company, and further increasing their value?
“But what about the exposure?” I hear you ask. Well, to combat this and many other wrong-headed arguments about why you should write for free, the fantasy author Matt Wallace has written a fabulous and entertaining Freelance Writer’s Rebuttal Guide.
Creating the expectation of unpaid work from minority groups is intensely problematic.
I’ve witnessed bloggers and editors in our sector specifically encourage contributions from under-represented groups, such as people of colour, disabled people and those who are LGBT+.
If these are paid? Fantastic. When these “opportunities” are unpaid, however, it only serves to entrench existing disadvantages and risks creating a two-tiered system.
It’s not as altruistic as it may initially seem.
Although I no longer have a Twitter profile, I do visit others’ Twitter pages from time to time. I was shocked when, a few months ago, I witnessed one sector blogger offer unpaid guest post “opportunities”, followed by a tweet that essentially expressed her pleasure at being able to take a break because others were doing the work for her.
If I were to publish a guest post, I would benefit from the increased traffic to my site and the resultant increase in my profile. This would benefit me far more than the person putting in the work. Any “exposure” that the writer would gain is tenuous at best.
It lowers aspirations when better opportunities exist.
Our sector is small and I thoroughly believe there are opportunities for any good writer with original ideas. My experience over the last year of writing this blog has proved that to me.
Instead of writing for free, I suggest the following:
- Pitch to the trade press. Third Sector occasionally puts out calls for submissions on Twitter, and they pay professional rates. I am not sure what the pitch process is for Civil Society (it would be excellent if they could be more transparent about this) but I would expect that, as a subscription publication, they also pay professional rates.
- Pitch to the national press, or specialist publications/websites where you have personal interest or affinity that overlaps with charity sector themes e.g. LGBT+, specific ethnic groups or religions, or local papers.
- Set up your own blog; my philosophy is if you are going to write for free, do it to build your own platform. I pay approximately £80 per year for the WordPress premium package but there is also a free package available.
There are, of course, exceptions
It is possible to volunteer as a writer, just as volunteers fill all sorts of roles at charities. The crowdblog 101 Fundraising exists to serve the entire fundraising community, and I believe writing for them for free is a worthwhile endeavour. The same goes for blogs for the Institute of Fundraising, because neither of these sites provides benefit to one individual over and above the entire fundraising community.
When is guest blogging acceptable? When it pays. The well-known YouTuber Tom Scott invites submissions for guest videos; notably, he promises a cut of the advertising revenue. Even with his extraordinary reach and influence, he accepts that providing this as the only benefit is not acceptable. Creative work should be paid.
How do I want to support aspiring writers? By urging them to aim high.
If it’s not obvious by now, I’m not offering any guest spots on my blog. I can’t afford to pay and, believe me, you can do better.
I hope this post will inspire some readers to pitch to the trade press and/or start their own blog. My experience of both has been very positive. When Third Sector commissioned me for my first paid article, the simple fact that I was being paid pushed me to work hard and produce something I was proud of. As for my own blog, over the past year and a half I’ve built an online portfolio, developed my voice as a writer, and built connections with others in the sector.
Our sector is small and I strongly believe that anyone who is a good writer and has something to say will get noticed. What’s more, we desperately need more diverse voices.
I admit that in the past (prior to my fundraising career) I’ve made the mistake of writing articles for free. As well as being exploitative this kept me in a limiting mindset: I did not see myself as someone who could develop their own platform or be paid for their writing.
It’s taken me to my mid-thirties to realise that both things can be true for me. And they can be true for you, too.