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Is pro-bono the passport to copywriting experience?

One of the biggest challenges for any new copywriter is building a client base. If you’ve never been self-employed before, the thought of finding someone prepared to pay you to write can be daunting … if not downright scary.

Gaining experience is a perennial problem and not just for copywriters. It’s something both job hunters and freelancers suffer from. Just how are you meant to get experience if nobody gives you a leg up and helps you gain that experience in the first place?

For the freelance copywriter, could the answer be to work pro bono?  Well, it could be. But, of course, it’s not always straightforward.

Pro bono is a shortened form of the Latin term ‘pro bono publico’ which means offering a professional service for the ‘public good’.

Offering services pro bono is a recognised practice. Remember though, it’s a far cry from working for nothing for unscrupulous opportunists. The world is full of people who will ask you to work free of charge with the promise of untold riches and paid-for work down the line. Believe them at your peril.

Nor should working pro bono be confused with free trials. There are many dodgy dealers who will demand you work for nothing to determine your suitability for the job.  You can bet they have asked a multitude of copywriters to do the same so they get the whole job done without paying a penny for the privilege.

I’m not going to talk about the different types of free work that might tempt you in your quest for experience.  If you’d like to know more, there’s a great blog on the subject on the Pro Copywriter’s Network written by Tom Albrighton.  But I am going to take a look at some of the pros and cons of pro bono work and how it can help (or hinder) your business development.

No such thing as a free lunch

While giving away your copywriting services for the public good might sound like a great idea, it isn’t always that easy. I know. I tried.

When I first started my freelance career, I contacted several local charities and good causes offering my services.  How could they refuse the offer of free copywriting?  Quite easily it would seem.  Despite phoning, meeting some of them, and sending them examples of my work, every single one either ignored me or rejected me. Why? Beats me.

Perhaps people think there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Perhaps they thought if it sounded too good to be true, it probably was.  Perhaps they thought there was a catch.  But whatever their reasons, I was rejected and my pro bono experience never materialised.

In a further burst of generosity and determination, I offered my services to two newbie start up business contacts I’d met at a networking event.  Surely they would be savvy enough to recognise the benefits of free copywriting?  How wrong could I be?  Another round of rejection!

Of course, this was just my experience. And there’s a good chance it was my lack of experience that caused the rejection.  Perhaps I had approached them badly or didn’t make my offer clear.  Whatever the reason, there are a large number of good causes and sensible people who’ll be delighted to trade your copywriting skills for experience.

Keep it in the family

While not pro bono, don’t forget family and friends.  In 2015, more than half a million new businesses were launched.  If you know or are related to some of these enterprising people, perhaps they will take advantage of your services and help you gain that elusive experience.

Barter as a way forward

In the early days, there’s a lot to be said for some good old fashioned barter.  There’s nothing wrong with swapping some scintillating copy for a new hair-do, a garden make-over or whatever else you can negotiate.

Remember … it’s still business

But whether you’re working pro bono for a good cause, doing your cousin a favour, or bartering your services, you still need to be businesslike about it. If you don’t, it could all go horribly wrong and you could find yourself with a long-term client who has never paid you a penny.

You’ll need to agree the scope and the scale of the project before you start. Thrash out the details and make sure everyone involved knows EXACTLY what you’re going to do and how long you’re prepared to do it for. Take into account any revisions you might need to make to the copy, any amendments or deviations from original brief, and the timescales.

If it’s a barter situation, make sure you negotiate a fair deal. There’s nothing to gain from pledging days of your time in exchange for a bunch of bananas. You’ll end up feeling cheated, and tempers and relationships will get frayed. Again, thrash out the details before you start.

Business Processes

As well as gaining valuable copywriting experience, you could use this opportunity to test your business processes. If you don’t already have your copywriting terms and conditions drawn up, this is a good time to start. Even if you’re working pro bono, having your T&Cs in place will make you look professional and give you a degree of protection.

Good luck!

 
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