When to call in the professionals

Photo credit: Foter.com

Because many volunteer organisations are operating on a shoestring budget, they’re often reluctant to spend money on professional design, editing or copywriting. This simplistic calculation, however, often fails to take into account the hidden economics of the decision.

Reputational damage. The longer-term impact on your brand from appearing unprofessional can have flow-on effects that outweigh the cost of employing a professional—such as failing to gain new members, or selling fewer tickets to your performance or event. Nothing turns people off faster than terrible design or sloppy writing. The assumption is that if you don’t know what you’re doing in these areas (or worse, you don’t care), you may not be great at organising the other, more important parts of your group either.

Money is obviously the catch with most volunteer groups, but you need to calculate the outlay against the return. If you’re running a fundraiser or a concert and a professionally designed poster will lead to more ticket sales, then it’s worth the upfront cost. Similarly, if you’re a theatre group producing programs, you’ll be able to charge more for something that’s well-designed and laid out (as opposed to put together in Microsoft Publisher, or, worse, Word!).

Time and opportunity costs. Unless you have volunteers with specialist skills such as graphic or web design, or editing, it will inevitably take them much longer to produce something of much lower quality than a professional. This is time they could be spending doing other tasks that better serve the organisation and that are a better fit with their skill set. In short, think about time as a resource. Are you spending it in the way that gets you the greatest return on your investment?

To take a personal example: I want to renovate my shed to turn it into an office. I could do it myself, fitting it around my other work, and teach myself the skills I need as I go. But I also don’t have the professional tools, so I’ll need to buy those too if I want to create something half decent. In summary, it’ll take me a lot longer than it would a professional, the quality won’t be as good, and I’ll have an outlay for tools as well. I’ll gain some skills, but I’m never going to be a builder and I really just want the shed done. I make as much or more than a professional builder, so in the end it makes more sense if I do what I’m good at and make money at it, and then pass that money on to the professional builder so they can do what they’re good at. Then I get a high-quality result without losing time that’s more valuable if I spend it elsewhere, and we’re all happy.

With this in mind, here’s a simple flowchart to give you some guidance when you’re undertaking a project with major design or writing elements.

Is this a big deal for our organisation?

Basically, what is the potential reputational cost of a poor-quality job? Things that fall into this category include:

  • Anything that involves your branding (new logo, slogan etc.)
  • Major events (e.g. annual fundraising gala, major performance)
  • Anything where you’re trying to attract new people to your organisation or sell products (e.g. markets/expos that may require banners or other publicity material)
  • Any foundational information about your organisation that potential members or supporters are likely to develop a first impression from (website, flyers, programs)

Do we have someone in the group with the skills we need?

Some groups are lucky enough to have people with either formal training in design, photography, writing, editing or related fields, or who are self-taught high-level amateurs. If you have a resource like this, use them! But most importantly, don’t take them for granted. Make sure you give them enough lead time and don’t have unrealistic expectations. Especially if they’re professionals doing it for free, remember that they’re donating potentially hundreds or even thousands of dollars’ worth of their time to help you. Make sure you credit their work appropriately, and at least give them some chocolate to show your appreciation!

Do they have access to the tools they need?

You can’t do decent graphic design in Microsoft Paint—it just doesn’t work. So if you’ve got someone with the skills but they don’t have the professional-level tools to do what you want (and you can’t provide them), then you need to think about hiring a professional.

Doing it yourself

If you do decide to do it yourself, make it as professional as you can by using all the free and low-cost tools available to you. Graphic design sites like Canva are discussed in this Useful Tools blog post, and you can now get high-quality printing for banners, fliers etc. done relatively cheaply. Someone with good writing skills will be able to do a basic proofread, although you won’t get the same level of detail as with a professional editor.

Above all, remember you get what you pay for. Good graphic design, photography, copywriting and editing don’t always come cheap, but they can make a huge difference to the success of your brand. Don’t just take the cheap option because it’s cheap—take the time to do proper calculations on whether you can expect to reap a large enough return from an improved image (and potentially charge higher prices for a professional product) to justify paying a professional.

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