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Lessons from my first 100 days as a self-employed fundraiser

Howard Lake | 10 May 2015 | Blogs

I am approached regularly by people who are about to take the plunge (or perhaps already recently have) to seek my advice on freelancing, consultancy and to enquire about associateships.
As I’ve recently stepped back into the self-employed world having had a “proper” job for 18 months, I’ve tried to be more conscious of the lessons I learned the first time around. As my first 100 days come to an end on Monday 11th May it seems appropriate to reflect and offer my top 10 lessons:

1. Be clear about what you are offering.

Don’t drift into becoming all things to all people. This is really tempting at the beginning. Saying no is enormously scary. I used to have a fear that I’d jinx myself and somehow if I said no once, I’d never be asked ever again.
Get your elevator pitch right as there will be a lot of networking opportunities and you will need to say what you offer very quickly.

2. Be clear about the value of what you are offering.

If you are confident that your prices are right then say no if a potential client will only pay a percentage of that rate. If you are busy working for a fraction of your usual rate your will not be available for the piece of work that is at the right price.
But be clear about your value, which is not the same as working out how much you’d like to earn and dividing it by 100 (this is the advice I was given, seriously). After all, who wouldn’t like to earn £1m a year? That doesn’t automatically qualify me as being worth £10k per day. In fact, who is?!


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3. A lot of your life will now be spent in coffee shops, cafes, restaurants and bars.

There are tools to help you get your name to as-yet unknown charities – Twitter, LinkedIn, blogging, speaking at conferences, the Institute of Fundraising consultants listing, advertising online and offline. There is nothing wrong with trying these and different people has different levels of success on each according to the time dedicated to each.
Most of the other self-employed people I meet get the majority of their work through word-of-mouth. They cultivate those relationships in a variety of coffee shops, cafes, restaurants and bars. Most of us can name a couple of suitable locations near each terminus in London for networking between Londoners and non-Londoners.

4. There are so many more distractions now that procrastination can be very easy.

All of that social media engagement you do to help build a reputation and get your profile out there can become a procrastination in its own right. Be aware of the things that distract us from the important stuff. It is hard at the beginning as you fill your time with this activity before you get a client. Just remember to keep assessing each activity’s value to you.
I am an Olympic-level procrastinator if I let myself. My new tactic is to recognise that it is okay not be busy, instead. There are no prizes for finishing work super-late. There is no league-table of freelancers and consultants that rates us by hours spent on “business development” (my generous term for idly passing time on a variety of social media platforms).

5. Keep balance in your life from the outset – no prizes for longest hours worked

This one deserves labouring as it is a lesson I’ve learnt the hard way. It is one thing to have a couple of contracts that overlap and mean you have to put in the hours but it is something else entirely to be working long days every single day.
Lots of stuff will suffer, including your health which is never an okay sacrifice. The other big side effect for me is losing perspective about how much work can be done in a day when I’m estimating for a piece of work (and never in my favour). Just don’t start.

6. Your income will no longer be steady – are you ready for the lag between work and payment

It might take you a while to secure your first contract*. Be prepared for three months of networking, discussing and proposing. You then won’t get paid for another two months (say you invoice at month-end and have payment terms – 30 days is a pretty normal expectation). That is nearly half a year without an income. And you might have a gap between that contract and the next one too – your income will always be unsteady from now on.
Don’t be put off by this, plan for it instead! Make sure you can afford it.
* there is a school of thought that says you should try to secure your first contract before you leave your job. If you can, great. If you can’t and you have thought it all through, then don’t let this hold you back.

7. Know what you’re good at and what you need to outsource yourself

You are an awesome fundraiser/ direct marketer/ new business person/ wordsmith/ other ___________ (delete as appropriate)
You might also be an awesome bookkeeper/ website builder/ administrator/ contract writer/diary manager. You just don’t know yet because you’re never tried.
In the early days you will do at least most of these things, of course. Just get ready to outsource when you are at the right moment. This will let you focus on doing what you already know you are awesome at and what you’ve chosen to make a living from.

8. Shop around for the right person to outsource your stuff to

When the time is right do shop around. Everyone else who is self-employed has a system for bookkeeping and an accountant and some will have a website builder, graphic designer or virtual assistant. Use those carefully-cultivated networks to get advice and opinion. Just make sure that those key relationships are right for you…
My accountant is the second firm I’ve hired. The first was perfectly decent and got the job done. But Matthew is friendly, tells me off for working too late, offers additional advice and I get on with him. Which is important to me.

9. Be a member of your professional body.

Being a member of the Institute of Fundraising means you have signed up to abide by the Code of Fundraising Practice. This is all our clients have to safe-guard themselves from a ne’er-do-well. We need to make it easy for them to feel relaxed and confident in us.
And then you get all of the benefits of membership which includes a whole heap of your peers, on tap as sources of support, company, clients and advocates. Very valuable.

10. You don’t have to pay for a desk to move away from working at home

In London there are lots of free co-working spaces occupied by the freelance generation – on top of all of the coffee shops, of course:
• Google Campus (you have to register)
• Royal Festival Hall
• British Library
• Barbican
• The Wellcome Collection café