A communicator’s case for “working for free”

I don’t tend to disagree that much with my father, these days at least.  We hold similar political views, and my dad has even adopted my beloved English football (soccer) team, Tottenham Hotspur, as his own.

But one long-time point of disagreement is about doing pro bono work in one’s chosen field. “DON’T WORK FOR FREE!” is a sentiment that my dad has expressed loudly to me on several occasions.

In my experience, one of the easiest, most rewarding investments I’ve been able to make in my career has been to do a small but noticeable amount of voluntary communications work.  But how should a communicator go about identifying and pursuing opportunities to volunteer?

  • Do the work you will want someone to pay you for in the future

If you are in the process of reinventing yourself, identifying and defining projects that would stretch your competence and extend your confidence, and then finding a worthy  beneficiary of your voluntary commitment is one way to help accelerate your career evolution.  Even if you aren’t going to get paid, you’d be asking an organization to give you a piece of its canvas to paint on, so each party would have sufficient stake in investigating an opportunity properly and in delivering a mutually beneficial outcome.

  • Go for a title upgrade

If you have managerial or executive ambitions that are unlikely to be fulfilled in your current role, going for a voluntary post with an attractive title can help burnish your CV a bit.  This is especially true if you want to be a communication director:  it’s generally easier in the business world to get hired to become something that you have already been, even if your previous experience may be part time or temporary.

If you do go this route, be serious about measuring the scope and value of your contribution, to demonstrate your commitment to measurement, which is adored in corporate communication circles, and to showing the impact you’ve had in the voluntary role.

  • Support a cause that you love

We communicators know that our work can often have a decisive impact to support causes and deliver outcomes.  If there’s a cause out there that you love and are committed to, and that is willing to let you contribute at an appropriate level, you can make a difference.  On many occasions, that’s more than payback enough.

  • Do the job you never dreamed of doing

I’ve been a board member at the chapter and regional level for the International Association of Business Communicators for a number of years. But, having rejoined the Europe Middle East North Africa Regional Board after a seven-year absence last month, I was asked by the Chair, the excellent Nikki Edwards, to take on the job of Treasurer.  I’d previously avoided being a treasurer in more than 30 years of volunteer activity.  But, having invested heavily in an MBA from London Business School, I could hardly claim total ignorance of the subject, and it occurred to me that taking on this role could augment my experience and education and new and unexpected ways.  So I’ll have the unusual experience of focusing on numbers as well as words while serving an association that has been my extended professional family for the last 15 years.

For me, I’ve never found anything better, or more cost-effective, at accelerating my career development and skill acquisition than doing a very selective amount of voluntary work.  It’s magnified my impact in the world, enhanced my value in the market, and broadened my perspective.