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.

Why your organisation needs a style guide

Many organisations, especially those involved in the media or publishing industries, have a ‘house style’—a way of writing that is particular to that organisation and is set out in their style guide. The style guide’s purpose is not to determine what is ‘correct’ and ‘incorrect’, but rather to serve as a reference point if there is any confusion and to ensure consistency across the organisation’s brand. Your style guide will lay out how to articulate the brand voice you decided was appropriate for your audience during your strategic planning.

There are two types of style guides. Visual style guides are aids for designers and contain things like your brand’s colours, font, logos and templates. Content style guides contain details of your organisation’s preferred spelling, terminology, voice, and word usage. Style guides can range in length from a few pages to an entire book; for example, the Australian Government’s Style manual for authors, editors and printers, which is the basis for all Australian government writing, is over 500 pages long and is extremely comprehensive.

As well as providing consistency across your organisation, style guides are also useful if you’re working with a freelance editor. Providing your editor with a style guide will speed up the process and ensure their edits are consistent with your brand.

Your style guide is a living document, so it should be updated regularly to take new usages into account. It should be easily accessible within your organisation, whether it’s produced in hard copy, published on your website or stored in a shared drive.

Visual style guide

Visual style guides set out all the elements related to your brand’s appearance, presentation and design. This allows you to ensure consistency across all your publicity material, whether physical or online, even if you’re working with different designers. Your visual style guide may include:

  • Logo size and placement (and how not to use the logo)
  • Colour palette (including hex codes/RGB for web use and CMYK/Pantone for printing)
  • Fonts (for headings and body text)
  • Any iconography or patterns that your organisation uses in its design
  • Photography style (including examples for reference)
  • Graphics style (including examples for reference)
  • Web-specific elements (such as navigation buttons or error pages)
  • Content templates.

Creating a visual style guide is a specialised skill, so it’s best to work with a graphic designer on this. Your designer can prepare a style guide as part of working with you on your overall branding, including designing your logo. If your organisation is likely to produce a lot of publicity material, a visual style guide is vital to ensuring brand consistency. The quickest way to appear unprofessional is to have a variety of fonts, colours and styles across your brand.

Content style guide

Style guides for written content contain details of the way your organisation expects its content to be written. These may include:

  • The version of English spelling that your organisation uses (e.g. American, British, Australian, Canadian)
  • Which dictionary/thesaurus should be used to check spelling or usage (e.g. Merriam-Webster, Oxford, Macquarie)
  • Preferred spelling of words commonly used by your organisation (e.g. Asia-Pacific not Asia Pacific)
  • Use of inclusive language
  • Any specific points of grammar, such as active voice
  • Specialised punctuation, including the use of bullet points or numbered lists, and the organisation’s preferred use of hyphens, en-dashes and em-dashes (but not punctuation that should be commonly understood, like the correct use of apostrophes)
  • Formatting
  • Accepted acronyms and abbreviations (which ones are acceptable without spelling them out in full)
  • Terminology (how organisation-specific terminology should be explained)
  • Words that should be avoided
  • Capital letters (especially if there are organisation-specific proper nouns)
  • Headings
  • Numbers and measurement
  • Tone and register (casual, informal, formal)
  • Brand voice
  • Reading level
  • Phrases
  • Methods of citation
  • Any stylistic devices unique to the organisation.

Style guides can be structured in different ways, but the main thing is that they have to be easy to navigate. They’re not designed to be read cover-to-cover; rather, your writers will use them as a resource that they dip in and out of. For this reason, they need to have a clear table of contents and ideally an index as well. If you’re publishing it online, the contents page should be hyperlinked to the relevant sections.

The other important thing to note is that you don’t have to develop a guide completely from scratch. There are a number of comprehensive commercial style guides, such as The Chicago Manual of Style (which is over 1000 pages long) that you can use as the basis for your organisation’s style guide. Think of the contents of your style guide as being in addition to the comprehensive guide, rather than repeating things from it. For example, most Australian government departments have their own departmental style guides based on the official government Style manual for authors, editors and printers. The convention is to first consult the departmental guide and, if it doesn’t contain specific guidance, to then consult the Style manual. This way, you’re prioritising your brand-specific style, but can still give your writers general guidance through the use of a commercial style manual. Many of these manuals, such as Chicago, now also have extensive online support. Developing your style guide this way will also allow you to keep it short (ideally no more than five pages), meaning that it is more likely to be used.

When developing your style guide, make sure you consult the people who will actually be using it—your writers and editors. They’ll be able to tell you if there are different usages in the organisation and help you select the most appropriate. Have a plan in place to regularly review and update the style guide, and a method for keeping track of possible changes in the interim. Your style guide is a living document and will need to adapt to evolving language, such as words going in and out of fashion or changing in meaning. This is especially true in organisations that deal with technology or media, where language changes fast.

 

Working with freelancers

Photo credit: IntelFreePress via Foter.com / CC BY

Many community groups and small nonprofits are operating on very tight budgets and are forced to do a lot of the day-to-day work themselves. But every now and again you’ll probably find yourself in a situation where you need to hire a professional to help you.

If you decide that you need to hire a professional writer, editor, designer or photographer, the chances are they’ll be a freelancer. They may be working as a sole trader or as a limited liability company, but either way you’ll be engaging a small business.

So how do you go about finding a freelance professional?

  • Word of mouth. Most freelancers get at least some, if not the majority, of their work through word of mouth, so start by asking around. Like tradespeople, a good freelancer will get recommended.
  • Industry bodies. Industry bodies, such as your local Society of Editors (or equivalent), usually have freelance registers. Going through an industry body will ensure the person you hire has the necessary training and experience.
  • E-work sites. Many ‘e-work’ sites have popped up in recent years. Just a word of warning—you get what you pay for. You may find that you can get your work done cheaply through these sites, but this will often come at the cost of quality. If you’re not prepared to offer a fair price, you’ll find that highly skilled professionals won’t respond to your ad. In fact, many established freelancers don’t use these sites as they already get enough work through other means. These sites also run on commission, meaning that, unlike hiring a freelancer directly, not all your fee will go to the person who does the work.

Working with freelancers

Before you start working with a freelancer, there are a few things to bear in mind that will help keep the relationship running smoothly.

  • Don’t ever ask a freelancer to work for ‘exposure’. Would you ask your local restaurant to give you your meal for free in exchange for ‘exposure’? No? Then why would you ask it of a creative professional? By doing this you also risk developing a reputation as a time-waster client—established freelancers won’t work with you and they’ll tell their networks. And apart from anything else, it’s just plain exploitative.
  • Freelancers are small businesses. This means they have to cover the costs of everything usually borne by employers, such as tax and retirement fund payments, out of the fees they charge. So while a quote might seem high to you, remember that anywhere up to 50 per cent of it (depending on the freelancer’s financial arrangements) goes straight to the government. It also means that time is money, so don’t ask for a face-to-face meeting unless you’re prepared to have travel time built into the quote. Go for email, phone or Skype instead.
  • Have a realistic budget. You get what you pay for, and what you’re paying for is the years of experience that established freelancers have behind them. The cost will vary according to the size of your project, the market in your location and the turnaround time, but it’s safe to say that $50 or $100 won’t cut it unless the job is very small.
  • Know what you want and write it down clearly. Freelancers of all stripes do their best work when they’re properly briefed. The quote you receive should outline the scope of the project, and for anything beyond that you may be charged extra. So knowing what you want will help you avoid ‘scope creep’ and will save you money.
  • Give them plenty of time. Rush jobs are always more expensive. Also, many experienced freelancers are booked up weeks or months in advance, so do some planning and enquire early.
  • Make sure you understand and adhere to the terms and conditions. Many freelancers will have terms and conditions listed that you agree to by accepting a quote. Make sure you understand and adhere to these—especially regarding payment and intellectual property—and if you don’t like them, don’t accept the quote. Some freelancers may also get you to sign a contract, depending on their business and the size of your project.
  • Pay on time. This is huge. Many established freelancers ask for full or partial upfront payment, and this is done for a very good reason—many clients don’t pay on time and freelancers have to pay their bills in the meantime. You are responsible for your organisation’s cash flow, not the freelancer, so if you don’t have the money to hire someone, don’t. You may be charged late fees if you fail to pay within the terms of the invoice, or in extreme cases you may be referred to a debt collection agency. In addition, many freelancers—especially graphic designers and photographers—won’t release the final product to you until the final payment has been received, and if you use the product without paying for it under these circumstances you’re violating their intellectual property and could leave yourself open to legal action. So make everyone’s lives easier and pay on time.
  • Be flexible and easy to work with. All freelancers get the occasional client from hell, and they usually only work with them once. Don’t be that person. This means keeping communication open and recognising that the freelancer will probably need to fit you around other projects, so stick to agreed deadlines and keep your expectations reasonable.

Rapid changes to the workforce mean that more and more people are choosing to work for themselves. A good relationship with a freelancer can be of enormous benefit to your organisation, and a relatively small investment in something like professional graphic design can have huge payoffs in terms of your organisation’s professionalism and ability to reach its audience. And, as I never tire of saying, a little planning goes a long way!

5 steps for scoping a project

For many volunteer organisations or community groups, scoping out a large project can be a daunting task. We’ve all been there – when confronted with a massive undertaking, such as developing a new policy or procedure, it can be hard to know where to start.

But learning to outline a project effectively is imperative – having a properly-scoped project will help you complete it on time and on budget. If you’re looking to work with an outside professional, such as a freelance designer, writer or consultant, you’ll also need to have a good idea of what you want before you approach them, because they’ll need to know details and timelines. So here are a few simple steps to make the process easier.

1. Start with the big picture. What is it you want to achieve with the project and why? E.g. “Develop a sexual harassment policy for our organisation to bring us into line with best practices and ensure we meet our legal and ethical obligations.”

2. Break it into chunks. Almost all projects can be compartmentalised to a certain extent – a long document can be broken into chapters or sections, for example. A large project becomes much more manageable once it’s in smaller pieces.

3. Prioritise the most important things. In most projects, there will be some areas that are critical and some that are less so. Figuring out what your priorities are will help you decide which tasks you need to complete first and/or which you need professional help with. This is particularly important if you’re working with a professional but don’t have the budget for them to complete the entire project. You can use a system such as MoSCoW to help align your priorities – list the things you Must do, Should do, Could do, and Want to do.

4. Develop concrete tasks. This is about translating your project from the ‘why’ to the ‘how’ – from a great idea to something that can actually be done. Your tasks need to be as specific and detailed as possible, so that the people doing them know exactly what they need to achieve. This is particularly important if you’re outsourcing some or all of them to professionals, because they’ll be working off what you tell them and any late changes could lead to an increased cost. Take each of the areas you’ve prioritised above and work out exactly what you need, e.g. “500 words outlining the history of our organisation, based on existing documents.” Make sure you think about all aspects of the task, including the amount of research or development that needs to be done, and a realistic timeframe for achieving it.

5. Set deadlines. Decide on an overall deadline for the project, and then work out individual deadlines for each task according to its priority. Make sure you factor in things like final proofreading for written documents, or board sign-off. The deadlines should be realistic, especially if you’re working with a professional, because quick-turnaround tasks will cost more. Note: ASAP is not a deadline!

Scoping a project takes time, and it can be frustrating when you’re enthusiastic and just want to launch straight into it. But it’s worth investing the time at the start to ensure you’ve got a really clear idea of how it’s going to run – it’ll save you a lot of grief down the track and will also help you maintain good relationships with any outside providers you’re working with.