Creating Content on a Budget: Working with Volunteer Writers

 In Content Marketing, Marketing Strategies, Small Business, Writing and Editing

When you’re creating content on a budget, you may have to turn to volunteer writers. Associations and nonprofits are particularly fertile ground for finding volunteers, but you can use them in almost any setting, including creating content for traditional marketing.

Working with volunteer writers is rewarding, but it’s more challenging than working with a writer that you’re paying. But by working intentionally and thoughtfully, you can get the best out of your volunteers.

Finding the Right People

Try not to issue a cattle call for volunteer writers. Making intentional, individual asks not only means more acceptances, but also a better end product. That’s not to say cattle calls are inherently bad. A standing call for contributions in a regular email, newsletter or in publications is a good practice that may draw the attention of new members and existing members that have flown under your radar.

Aside: Have some submission guidelines ready to go. I encourage volunteer writers not to submit a complete manuscript if they don’t have one already written. That way, they don’t do a lot of work for something we wouldn’t accept, anyway. Examples of some information you may want in include are:

  • Length of article.
  • Rules for sourcing, if you have any.
  • Copyright restrictions.
  • What style guide you use, such as Chicago.

If you’re a membership organization, you have a built-in stable of writers. Your membership is already engaged and you have their information at your fingertips (They aren’t? You don’t? Call us.) Work with your membership team to identify people who could write for you. Get to know them and use those people wisely. Talk to your board and leadership about people they know in the organization who might be good candidates for your publications. Use them as extra eyes and ears to help you identify talent.

So what do you do if they say no? Thank them politely for their consideration and then make another ask — if they know anyone who might be interested. Remember, you reached out to them for a reason. They’re an expert in their field and are sure to know other experts, maybe even one with some free time to write for you.

Think outside the box. If someone says no, they don’t have time for a full feature, see if you can get them into your publications another way. Maybe a Q&A or repurposing a blog they’ve done. This gets their expertise in your pages for your readers and saves your volunteer time.

Making the Ask

Target your asks carefully and tailor your requests to the specific potential volunteer. It’s a lot like making a sales call, but instead of selling a product or service, you’re selling an opportunity.

Speaking of that opportunity, highlight it. Have a specific goal for the writer in mind, and not just filling a hole in your editorial plan (You have one of those, right? No? Give us a call.). Make sure you spell out exactly what writing for you can do for your potential volunteer. Maybe it’s reaching a wider audience with their ideas, maybe it’s filling in a résumé or helping them get tenure. Find out their need and fill it, just like they are helping you fill yours.

If you can, ask your organization if you can offer a small honorarium. This isn’t like paying and is typically much less than a publication would pay. But it is recognition that you’re using someone’s intellectual property and can be an enticement for someone who’s on the fence.

Setting Expectations

Know what you want before the first words are put to paper. Always do this in writing; if you feel phone call or a personal meeting is the best approach, follow up with an email that lays out both your responsibilities and theirs. Some things to consider including:

  • Any and all deadlines, including for drafts.
  • Word counts.
  • Graphic sizes, if applicable.
  • Copyright information.

Make sure to be clear on what they should expect from you, too. Some of the things you might outline on your end are:

  • Your own deadlines, perhaps one that says how many days the writer should expect you to evaluate and return a piece.
  • That you or your organization will file and manage copyright and requests.
  • That you’ll provide PDFs or other complimentary copies of the finished work.

Following Through

Try to be as flexible as possible with your volunteer writers. Remember, for many people, getting paid is a powerful motivation and you have to expect that when life happens, you might be the commitment that gets the ax. Work with a net, having a back-up plan whenever possible. Yes, it might mean more work for you, but it builds a reputation as understanding and good to work for, and, more often than not, gets you a favor in return.

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