Freelancers can provide flexible and cost-effective options for arts organisations, writes Laura Drane
If I am to assert that freelancers can provide great value for organisations, I must be clear that this is not an assertion made at the expense of core employed staff. Yes, externally tendered roles can mean that expertise and operational experience is lost at the end of a contract, and some may baulk at the perceived high day rates being commanded. However, when funding cuts are biting and organisations are seeking to meet existing targets whilst reducing overheads, sometimes a freelancer can provide a really flexible, effective and cost-efficient option in addition to a core team. Contracts that might be short-term and/or part-time employment opportunities can translate really well into freelance contracts if you take the salary, divide it by a day rate and look at what outcomes can be achieved against the fee. One great example is maternity cover, for which several organisations I know have taken on freelance cover.
As ‘research’ for this article, I asked a few fellow freelancers for their opinions on the matter (including Sally Fort, Helen Palmer and Sara Teiger), and here are some of our reasons, in no particular order, why freelancers can be great value for organisations.
Flexibility, availability and responsiveness
Freelancers can assist an organisation that needs to be responsive in relation to its capacity and skills, being brought in for time-bound projects or periods. Working to respond to peaks and troughs within an organisation’s schedule allows for changes in the timeframe on both sides. More often that not, we are able to wriggle some room in our schedule to meet a pressing deadline, without organisational concerns about time-off-in-lieu or overtime.
New thinking, freshness and energy
Being an outsider can sometimes lead to a really honest appraisal of an organisation’s situation. Drawing on our previous experience also means that we can bring fresh thinking and new ideas or connections.
Skills, knowledge and expertise
Bringing in a contractor can mean that the organisation benefits from skills or knowledge that are not currently located in the staff or board, or not necessarily needed all the time.
Potential financial savings
Freelancers do not present the organisation with costs often associated with employees (such as national insurance, admin and other overheads).
Focus on specific projects or outcomes
Working towards specified objectives against a fixed fee or monthly retainer means that freelancers are very focused on making headway and achieving targets. Tightly defined outcomes and a looming deadline help to provide focus.
Bringing in a truly external view point can enable a very clear and focused perspective on the work, without becoming distracted by other organisational issues.
Assistance and support for staff
This is key for most organisations, since freelancers allow them to expand capacity or add to specific skills, and therefore assist and support core staff.
Productive and efficient
When you pay a freelancer, you’re generally paying for every time-sheeted productive hour, rather than every tea break or web browse.
Drawing on a portfolio of previous work, we bring ideas for workarounds, connections, contacts, suppliers and so on.
Now we’ve had our say, it seemed only sensible for me to ask a couple of my current and recent clients about their experiences to get their side of the story. Robin Simpson, Chief Executive of Voluntary Arts and one of my longest-standing colleagues and clients, noted that: “One major benefit of using freelancers is that it gives us, in effect, a broader base of expertise and skills while maintaining a great deal of flexibility – bringing in someone with exactly the skills to undertake a particular task as they are needed but without entering into a long-term commitment to have to maintain funding for a permanent post. This allows our organisation to maintain a relatively lean, sustainable core while expanding and contracting as funding becomes available.” Another senior manager in a client company quipped that it meant, “Saying and thinking the unthinkable was possible,” through constructive challenge and provocation because I was truly external.
On the whole, it’s a model that’s served me well with a number of longer-term clients after an initial bout of work was completed: the company knows how to get the best out of me, and I know their preferences, politics, systems and staff, meaning we work together even more closely and effectively. If there is recognition over time of the expertise a freelancer can bring, it allows there to be adaptability in every aspect of the brief. I once worked closely with a client over several months who went from thinking they wanted a one-off edition of a magazine to agreeing that what they really needed was a new web resource.
So, next time you advertise a post, consider whether you could offer it as employment or freelance and open it up to a conversation between those best placed to do that work, be they potential employees or contractors. All of which is a bit rich of me since I’ve just ‘incorporated’ and am now an employed director of my own company! So just maybe, one day, I’ll be ruminating on this issue from the other side of the fence…
Laura Drane is Director of Laura H Drane Associates Ltd, an arts and cultural project management and consultancy company, based in Manchester and working nationally since 2002.
This week Laura saw Brad Fraser’s new play ‘5 @ 50’ at the Royal Exchange; book-grouped Aravind Adiga’s blistering debut and Booker Prize-winning novel ‘The White Tiger’, and sorted all but one of her tickets for Manchester International Festival.