In PR, you'll get lots of great opportunities for great opportunities.
Our skills are "soft" -- most of the value of what we sell comes from inside our brains. We sell ideas and approaches, words and images. They're not hard goods with a wholesale cost and a mark-up.
We do things others value, but to which others don't always assign a dollar value.
If you ran a candy shop, people would likely expect to have to pay for the candy they bought in it. After all, you had to buy the candy from your distributor, you had to pay rent on the candy shop, it makes sense.
But when your inventory is in your mind, you're just walking around with it. As others sometimes see it, it's something you can just donate.
The Coordinator of the Creative Communications program at Red River College receives hundreds of requests for CreComm student volunteer work every year; individual instructors receive even more on top of that, and I'm certain the students themselves field even more. Each organization asking for help has a project that legitimately needs the work of a skilled communicator, and CreComm students are that, for sure.
But there are only so many hours in a day. The workload is heavy in our program, and some have to manage part-time jobs, too, not to mention trying to see their family and friends on occasion. While they might love a great "portfolio builder," they're short on time, and they unfortunately can't do it all.
We have a board at the College where we post volunteer opportunities that come in, and some of them do attract student volunteers. Given that the requests easily outnumber the students, though, many don't.
Not just a student problem
Professional communicators, and especially freelancers ("you have so much free time!") are often asked to do pro bono work -- and many (if not most) of us do. I've done writing, project coordination, strategy development and social media work for non-profits at Lockstep, and have enjoyed both the experience of working with the organizations, and knowing I was helping out.
I've also had to decline some requests for volunteer work; when it comes down to it, I can't allow pro-bono work to interfere with my commitments to the College or to paying clients. It's always hard to say no: I've never been approached by an organization I didn't think could use the help. But it's a reality of business.
Choosing pro-bono work
Most of us would like to be able to help just about anyone (anyone with positive motives, that is); unfortunately, pro-bono work won't pay the mortgage. So we have to choose.
Everyone has different priorities, personally and professionally -- and those should guide you as you decide whether to do free work. But here are some questions you might ask yourself as you consider an opportunity.
1. Could this organization afford to pay someone to do this work? There are two angles here: making sure you're helping an organization that really needs the help, and not taking paying work away from yourself or a colleague by doing it for free.
2. Is this an organization I personally want to help? Choose organizations that do work you believe in; you'll do better work for them, and feel good about doing it. You'll also be prouder to showcase your work in your portfolio.
3. What exactly is expected of me? Get everything out on the table, and be specific about your deliverables and their deliverables. Make it clear up-front what's expected from everyone involved, so you know exactly (well, at least approximately) how much time this work will take. This isn't always the easiest part of the process, especially when you're dealing with volunteer boards who may have sketchy ideas about what they want from a communications perspective, but it's worth doing... for peace of mind on both sides of the table.
4. Will doing work for this organization help me network? Non-profits are full of smart, energetic, committed people who are well-connected to other similar people in the community. Look at who's involved with the organization and determine whether there's an opportunity for you to work with people who might be able to help you professionally down the road. After all, doing great pro-bono work for a cause they care about is a great way to show your skills and what kind of person you are.
5. Is there some way I can leverage the relationship to help my career? Some organizations have member newsletters, websites, social media properties etc. that can be used to help position you as a supporter and contributor to the cause, and to showcase your work. Don't be afraid to ask: an organization looking for free help should be willing to help you back, in return.
6. Will I have fun? Before taking on a volunteer gig, think about whether you'll enjoy it. If you don't, it'll be too tempting not to give it your best -- and that won't serve the organization or your reputation well.
Volunteer opportunities are fantastic ways to stretch your skill sets, build your portfolio, meet new people, try new things, and find new opportunities for down the line.
To make the most of them, treat your volunteer work as though you were being paid for it: be professional in every respect, from attitude to quality to timelines. You'll be happy you did.