Photo by Corinne Kutz on Unsplash
September 11, 2019

How should you work with freelancers?

Sandy Zimmerman, Big Duck’s Art Director, shares her experiences freelancing for nonprofits and managing new freelancers at Big Duck. She offers tips for organizations looking for freelance designers and writers, including where to find them, how to vet them, and logistics around hiring.


Sarah Durham: Welcome to the Smart Communications Podcast. I’m your host Sarah Durham and I’m here to today with Sandy Zimmerman. Hi, Sandy.

Sandy Zimmerman: Hi, Sarah.

Sarah Durham: Sandy joined the Big Duck Team in 2013. She’s been a Designer and recently an Art Director on our staff but before that she had a long and magnificent career doing design work for a host of clients on a freelance basis many of whom were nonprofits. So, you’ve worked on all kinds of branding and production and annual reports and all kind of things.

Sandy Zimmerman: That’s right.

Sarah Durham: I invited Sandy to come on the podcast today to talk about freelancers because not only has she been one but in her job at Big Duck she regularly finds freelancers and manages them and we’ve observed that sometimes organizations really get a lot of benefit from freelancers but many organizations really struggle to figure out where to find them and how to use them. Let’s dig in.

Sandy Zimmerman: Great.

Sarah Durham: Sandy, what kinds of projects should a nonprofit think about hiring freelancers for?

Sandy Zimmerman: Freelancers can be great for finite projects that are well defined. Like a print project. Like an annual report or e-newsletter. Print newsletters. Things like that.

Sarah Durham: Event collateral.

Sandy Zimmerman: Yeah. Event collateral. Gala invitations. I think from our perspective when we create a brand and a brand toolkit what we often see and envision is that the nonprofit organization will then hire a freelancer to use the tools that we set up to implement materials within that brand.

Sarah Durham: Often if you’re debating whether or not to hire an agency or a freelancer, I would say one of the big differences which is a different way of what you’re talking about, Sandy, is about shelf life and also about depth of expertise. It’s not that hard to find a great freelancer who can design an event invitation or an annual report. It can be challenging to find a freelancer who can put together a really complicated project like maybe a large scale website or a sophisticated brand and those are projects where not only is the work potentially more complex and you might want more expertise but also the shelf life of that relationship might be much longer. You might need to continue to work with that partner for a much longer period of time. Where should nonprofits look for freelancers? What’s the best place to find them because I think that is often a thing that people struggle with?

Sandy Zimmerman: My number one tip for finding freelancers is word of mouth and exploring your own networks. When I was a freelancer as Sarah mentioned for many years before joining Big Duck, I had tons of projects that came through kind of one after another. I got hooked up with one organization and then somebody else through them would find out and that was great for me but it’s also great for the nonprofit. Even if you don’t think you know any designers you can reach out to your friends who work at nonprofits or peer organizations. You can look at materials they’ve created and see what you like and see who they worked with. I think that is definitely the most comfortable route to find somebody who has been tested and vetted. Otherwise there are many ways you can go online and search through larger pools.

Sarah Durham: There are a couple of job sites that I know you’ve used when we’re using freelancers here or you’re recommending. What are some of the websites for finding freelancers?

Sandy Zimmerman: There a few different ways to go. There are sites like Behance which is a huge portfolio site of all different kinds of designers and artists and they’re partnered with Adobe.

Sarah Durham: Are designers posting portfolios there?

Sandy Zimmerman: Yes. So you can browse through portfolios. You can search with all kinds of filters. There is the AIGA which is the graphic design trade association.

Sarah Durham: I think it’s the American Institute of Graphic Artists.

Sandy Zimmerman: Yeah.

Sarah Durham: Right?

Sandy Zimmerman: They have job listings that I think are a great place to go and then there are other kinds of platforms like Upwork where you can post a gig and have people bid on it.

Sarah Durham: Behance and AIGA website are a little different because they’re actually platforms that are really built for creative people. You can post your portfolio or AIGA is a trade association that graphic designers join and belong to. So, it’s quite possible that you as a nonprofit could go there and proactively find somebody and contact them or they might even have a paid area where you could post a listing. It’s a different kind of community than an Upwork or a Fiverr. Those are for profit websites that you post an ad on, don’t you? And then they take a transaction fee.

Sandy Zimmerman: Yes. And I think those sites can help you with things like taxes and you don’t pay the freelancer directly so it could potentially take away some of the logistics of paying and working with a freelancer.

Sarah Durham: So, those are great options if you’re a smaller organization probably.

Sandy Zimmerman: Yeah. Another one that I failed to mention is is a great site that is specifically for nonprofits. There are many designers out there who are looking specifically to work with nonprofits and that is definitely a go-to place to list an ad as well.

Sarah Durham: Yeah. is definitely the first place we also post job listings. If we’re hiring at Big Duck and we’ve gotten some great creative people, perhaps even you, who came through Idealist.

Just to add a little more depth to the conversation about the paid platforms, I’ve had some experience with Upwork and the way that Upwork works is you post an ad or a brief. You can say, “I need somebody to produce a video for me” and you post a little bit of information about your project and then people in the network can bid on it. So, people basically submit proposals to you. So, what often happens in these sites is that it’s just creating a way almost for you to do like a RFP to different freelancers and then it’s up to you to choose who you work with but they take a transaction fee that is what 2.75%? The processing fee. So, that could be pretty significant if you’re looking for a long term relationship.

Let’s say you’ve surfaced some freelancers, how do you vet them? How should a nonprofit go about accessing if some of the people who’ve applied to do the project are a good fit?

Sandy Zimmerman: The first thing you are going to want to look at is their prior experience and see some samples of work that they have done. It will be reassuring to see if they’ve done projects that are similar to the kind of projects you need help with and you also want to make sure that their work is professional looking. If there is a certain tone of voice that you’re looking to express, that might be something to look for in prior work that they’ve done. You’ll want to eliminate anyone who has sloppy typos in their work or broken links or things like that in their portfolio. Those are red flags and good ways to just eliminate people.

Sarah Durham: Yeah. I think one of the great things about living in a digital moment is that you can get a real sense for how the work looks with the graphic designer and their detail orientation just from their website. Most of them will have a website and at least you can decide whether or not their quality is up to your standard or their creative capacity is up to your standard.

The other piece, if you’re looking for somebody you might work with for more than just a very discrete moment though is also chemistry and the way that they’re able to collaborate with you and the people in the organization. Are they a good culture fit? Do you have any tips for that?

Sandy Zimmerman: Yeah. I think it’s good to get on the phone with people even though email is so easy and might be the way you end up communicating with that person. It’s probably a good idea to start your relationship by having a phone conversation if not an in person meeting if you’re in the same location.

I think also it’s good also to find out a little bit about their work background. I don’t know that asking for references is necessary because you will have the opportunity to test them out on a limited project basis anyway but sometimes it can be a little hard to tell if work that you’re seeing on somebody’s portfolio site is a school project or something they made up or something that is actually real. I think it’s also good to see what they’ve done that’s in the real world.

Sarah Durham: I think one of the things that you can surface in a conversation that might be useful is whether or not they are approaching the work that they do as problem solvers or as implementers, task implementers. For instance, if you’re doing a project where you just need somebody to take a template that you’ve already created and flow your newsletter and make a bunch of production changes and get it done, you want an implementer. You want somebody who is like a short order cook who’s got very high accuracy and you can give them the work and they will get it done as quickly and reliably as possible to your specifications.

But if you’re doing a project that is a little bit more nuanced or sophisticated, you might actually want a problem solver. Somebody who really listens to the underlying challenge that you’re trying to address and not only gives you a solution that is what you think you want but maybe gives you other kinds of solutions.

Sandy Zimmerman: Mm-hmm. Yeah. That’s great advice.

Sarah Durham: How would you probe for that? What kind of questions could you ask a freelancer when you’re talking to them on the phone that might help you get a sense for how they approach their work?

Sandy Zimmerman: Probably asking about other work they’ve done in the past and how they typically go about working with clients and maybe have them describe some of their favorite projects to you and what that process looked like.

Sarah Durham: And their role specifically. Was it their idea? Who’s idea was it? How important is it for you to generate the ideas, etc. Yeah.

The last piece we should touch on is some of the logistics because I think that there a couple of variables that nonprofits may not always be aware of when you hire freelance creative people. Sandy, what are some of the logistics that you try to tackle when you’re managing freelancers?

Sandy Zimmerman: Some of the things you might come across are how you pay them, what kind of pay structure you are going to work with. Are you going to give them a project fee and let them determine how many hours they need to put towards it or can you pay them by the hour?

It’s helpful for the freelancer if you have a set budget in mind so that they can determine what they can do with your money and give you an estimate of how much you can expect within that budget. You’ll also want to think about the intellectual property of the work.

Sarah Durham: It’s such an important topic. Yeah. I mean the intellectual property in the creative world is generally owned by the creative person. So, if I hire a freelancer to generate 100 logo ideas unless I specifically have it in writing that we own those ideas, they own those ideas. Is that correct?

Sandy Zimmerman: Yeah. Yes.

Sarah Durham: So, having some sort of contractor agreement where you specify the payment terms in very explicit terms. The intellectual property, a lot of freelancers will work on what is called a work for hire clause which basically means that you own any of the work that they produce on your watch but you’ll want to have that language correctly put into any agreement.

What other logistics are worth keeping an eye out for?

Sandy Zimmerman: Another logistical item you’ll want to think about is if you need a non-disclosure agreement or if there are confidentiality issues that go with your project and make sure that you get all that paperwork taken care of before you actually start the project.

Sarah Durham: Yeah. See, your organization probably already has a standard NDA agreement and sending that to a freelancer even before you tell them too much information about the project is completely standard and par for the course. So I think what we’re saying in all these logistical points, too, is don’t just get on the phone with them, they sound good, you agree on an hourly rate and you go. Try to get some of those things in writing and if somebody is really a true professional, they should be able to write it up for you. This is really their business and you’re their client.

Certainly encourage your freelancers to do the lift to put together an agreement that specifies who owns the intellectual property rights, exactly how and when they get paid, any confidentiality issues and any other issues that might be unique to your organization that you want to make sure that you have an agreement about in writing.

Sandy, any parting tips? Anything else you want to make sure that people think about before they hire freelancers?

Sandy Zimmerman: I guess the final thing I would want to mention is that if you have an ongoing need for work, I think it’s great to find a freelancer who can be a partner with you who can really learn your brand and produce things in a consistent way. So, rather than finding one person to do one job and another person to do another job and that risks having your brand look unprofessional or inconsistent, having your audiences not recognize you, finding one person who is ideally dedicated to your mission and excited to work with nonprofits will serve you best.

Sarah Durham: Yeah. And then the investment as they get to know who you are, how you like to work, what your communications preferences are, that investment pays off over time. It gets to be faster and faster to work with them. It maybe even worth putting that person on a small monthly stipend or retainer so that you know every month you’ve got a certain number of hours of their time and you don’t have to kind of start from scratch every time you have a new project. Great advice.

Okay. Sandy Zimmerman, thank you for joining me.

Sandy Zimmerman: Thanks for having me.