United Way of the Lower Mainland 2002

I’ve written many times before about how the most profound of life lessons can be gleaned from the most unexpected of sources. If you told me ten years ago that I would today own and run my own company, I’m not sure I would have believed you. But here I am.

In addition to the usual studies in the classrooms and the essays that I wrote, perhaps one of the most empowering components of my university education was the Arts Co-Op Program. It gave me an opportunity to work with different companies and get some real-world professional experience. After sending out countless resumes and going on at least a dozen interviews, I landed my first co-op placement at United Way of the Lower Mainland.

Each fall, the organization runs its annual fundraising campaign. There are community events, but the bulk of the fundraising is done through the individual campaigns run at various companies around the Metro Vancouver area. A volunteer from each of these companies heads up their own campaigns and they need a point of contact at United Way to help them setup and manage the campaigns, as well as supply all the necessary materials. I was that point of contact for some 26 companies of varying size and, all said, those workplace campaigns raised over $600,000 for our community.

But what does any of that have to do with the freelance writing work that I do today? Quite a lot, actually.

Introduction to the Independent Contractor

Prior to my four months at United Way, all of the jobs that I had held were far more conventional in nature. I’d receive “shifts” with set working hours. I’d commute to a single workplace and I typically would not leave that workplace until my shift was complete. I reported directly to a supervisor and had minimal, if any, managerial duties whatsoever. That changed with United Way, because I wasn’t their employee; instead, the arrangement was one of an independent contractor.

In many ways, the same kind of relationship that a freelancer has with his clients. I’m not working for them; I’m working with them. Aside from orientation work, I had no set working hours at United Way. Some of my colleagues had to take care of pancake breakfasts at 6am, while others had to take care of other events in the late evenings or over the weekend. And even though United Way does have an office that served as my home base of operations, I spent a lot of time driving around to visit with the different companies I was assigned.

It was a heavily mobile experience and this was before smartphones and mobile data. It was also a very flexible experience, which really helped to guide me toward the kind of work configuration that I have today.

Track Your Expenses

With all of my previous jobs, like working at a movie theater, I put in my hours and earned my wage. Aside from the shift to earning a steady salary, the other main difference with United Way was that I was reimbursed for mileage. As mentioned above, I did a lot of driving (in my own car). I’d keep track of every trip that I took, tally it all up a the end of the month, and submit this expense report for reimbursement.

The system is a little different for what I do today, but that experience provided me with a basic introduction to handling business expenses. It taught me to be diligent with keeping accurate and up-to-date records, not only in regards to mileage, but also with the details surrounding each campaign I was managing.

Multiple Clients, Multiple Campaigns

Following that line of thought, my time at United Way also served as fantastic experience in managing the needs and personalities of multiple campaign managers. The companies I was assigned ranged tremendously in size; some were only a small office of a dozen or so employees, while my largest had over 600 employees in a single office. Similarly, I was faced with some reluctant campaign managers who wanted to keep everything low-key and low-pressure, whereas others were United Way campaign veterans who were incredibly enthusiastic about fundraising.

Given this, I had to adjust my approach accordingly. In much the same way, I am now more comfortable working with different personalities when it comes to all of my freelance writing clients. Some are much more hands-on than others, some require more guidance, and so on.

Autonomy, Fulfillment and Accomplishment

What I found was that even though we were working in a team environment where we all had similar objectives, each of us also had a great deal of independence and autonomy. We’d have meetings to check up on everyone’s progress and such, but we were largely left to our devices to liaise with our contacts at the various companies. I liked that. In some ways, it introduced me to how it would feel to be my own boss and this was several years before I started freelancing at all.

Perhaps even more importantly, my job at United Way gave me a great opportunity connect the hard work that I did with the results that I produced. It wasn’t completely in my hands, to be sure, but it gave me a great sense of accomplishment when I saw one campaign double their donations compared to the previous year, for instance. This direct connection provided a great sense of accomplishment and, since it was for a charitable cause, it also gave me a sense of fulfillment. I felt what I was doing mattered and that it was truly making a difference.

And while the charity aspect isn’t really there, I still get the same feeling of ownership and achievement with my freelance work. All of our experiences help to shape and mold the people that we become and I am very grateful for the opportunity I had to work with United Way. It made me a better freelancer and a better person.