3 Surefire Ways Volunteering Helps You Get Freelance Work

Since 1997, Melissa L. Bogen, ELS has built her freelance medical editing business on one key thing: referrals from colleagues in the American Medical Writers Association (AMWA). Melissa knows that clients want to work with freelancers they know—or freelancers recommended to them by people they know. She also knows that professional associations are one of the main places that clients go to find freelancers. 

Through professional associations, clients can ask colleagues for referrals to trusted freelancers and meet freelancers themselves. And freelancers usually look to their colleagues from professional associations when they have an opportunity to refer to another freelancer.

1. Volunteering Leads to Referrals to New Clients 

But Melissa isn’t getting these referrals because she is a member of AMWA. By volunteering for AMWA, Melissa has established a reputation as an expert in medical editing and a trustworthy freelancer. For example, Melissa has made presentations at the AMWA annual conference on Microsoft Word tips and the scope of medical communications, and served on one chapter’s freelance conference committee. Many AMWA members know Melissa from her volunteer work.

“One AMWA member came up to me immediately after a presentation to ask about my availability for editing. Her managing editor and I still refer work to one another, 10 years later,” says Melissa. 

Sometimes, though, referrals and other new business takes time. Five years after another presentation Melissa gave, one of the attendees contacted her about working together. That’s why it’s so important to stay in touch with people.

As Melissa has found out, volunteering for professional associations lets you highlight your expertise and gain more visibility among clients and colleagues. That’s why volunteering is the quickest way to build the trust that leads to referrals. And it’s much easier than active networking for most freelancers, because you don’t have to try to “sell yourself.” 

Getting Your Name Out There 

Freelance medical and science writer Mia DeFino, MS, ELS has been volunteering for AMWA and other professional associations since she started her business in 2016. And she’s gotten many referrals by volunteering.

Mia volunteers for her local AMWA chapter, where she has helped plan chapter events and served as conference chair and events committee chair. In 2018, Mia gave a presentation with another freelancer, Kristin Harper, PhD, MPH, ELS, on strategies for freelance success at AMWA’s annual conference. She’s also written articles on conference sessions for the AMWA Journal.

And Mia has also volunteered for Women in Bio and the Interdisciplinary Association for Population Health Science. She was the co-chair of the Grants Committee for Women in Bio’s Chicago chapter and a member of the editorial board for the blog of the Interdisciplinary Association for Population Health Science.

“By volunteering, people know my name,” says Mia. “Colleagues who have seen my work first-hand through volunteering know I am reliable and pleasant to work with and do quality work.”

One client hired Mia after reading a blog post she wrote for the Interdisciplinary Association for Population Health Science. Colleagues Mia has met through volunteering have referred freelance jobs to her. So have people she doesn’t know, who know of her through her volunteer work.

Heavy Networking Early Sets the Stage for Freelance Success 

Freelance medical writer Michelle Dalton, ELS gets all of her new business from word of mouth now. “I attribute that to my heavy networking early on,” she says. Michelle started Dalton & Associates Inc., which specializes in ophthalmology, in 2006.

Michelle started volunteering for AMWA as soon as she joined, writing articles for her chapter’s newsletter and later becoming president of the chapter and leading roundtables at local and national conferences. By volunteering, Michelle met leaders in the chapter and successful freelancers who introduced her to more people. “More and more people began to think of me as the eyeball gal,” says Michelle.

2. Volunteering Helps Freelancers Build Skills

Building new skills is another benefit of volunteering for professional associations. And often, you can use those skills in your freelance business.

One of my volunteer activities was to help my local AMWA chapter develop its first e-newsletter. At the time, I knew nothing about how to do this. But I thought it was a skill that might come in handy.

So I taught myself how to design an e-newsletter and how Constant Contact worked. A few years later, I used those skills when I started an e-newsletter for my freelance business. 

Volunteering can also help freelancers develop and practice the people skills that we need to work effectively with clients. 

Serving as an officer for my chapter and on committees for the national organization helped me learn how to work with different types of people, including difficult people.  I learned how to be more collaborative and more tactful, and how to manage difficult clients.

“You always learn a lot when you volunteer for something,” adds Kristin. As the communications chair and then the blog editor for the Interdisciplinary Association for Population Health Science, Kristin learned how to launch and manage an organization’s blog. And there’s lots of blog work for freelance writers these days.

3. Volunteering Gives Freelancers Support 

Freelancing isn’t easy. Sometimes we need advice or sympathy from someone who understands us—another freelancer. 

Volunteering for professional associations makes it easy to build your support network. You and your freelance friends can share experiences (good and bad) and give and get practical advice and support.

During her first year as a full-time freelancer, Erin L. Boyle ran into a bad client. Erin knew that something was wrong, but she didn’t know what to do about it.

Erin and I had met through AMWA, where she has served as president of the Mid-Atlantic Chapter and given presentations at the annual conference.  

When Erin emailed to ask for help, I was able to give her some practical advice about how to handle the situation. And I supported Erin by letting her know that these types of things happen to all freelancers.

Reassurance that something is normal and didn’t happen because we did something wrong is just as important as practical advice. I often turn to my freelance friends when I need help dealing with a difficult client. 

One time, I found out that a bad client I needed advice about did the same thing on the same project to another more experienced freelancer.  While I was pretty sure that I hadn’t done anything wrong, hearing her story made me feel much better—and much more confident.

Get Started Volunteering for Your Professional Associations

“Volunteer for something you are interested in and excited about,” says Mia. “Show you can deliver results and connect with a variety of individuals.” 

All professional associations use volunteers. Visit the website of your professional association(s) to look for information on volunteering. If you can’t find it, just email any of the officers and let them know you’d like to volunteer.

Need to Join Professional Associations?

If you don’t belong to any professional associations yet or want to join a few more, check out Professional Associations: The Best Way to Get High-Paying Freelance Work.

The post includes information on:

  • Types of professional organizations 
  • How to find the right professional associations.

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Learn More About Volunteering for Professional Associations

Professional Associations: The Best Way to Get High-Paying Freelance Work

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Learn More About the Featured Freelancers

Melissa Bogen

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Mia DeFino, MS, ELS 


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Kristin Harper, PhD, MPH, ELS


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Erin L. Boyle


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Michelle Dalton, ELS 

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