The Future of the Freelance Economy for Associations

Freelance work is evolving and growing in associations—especially with more companies embracing a hybrid environment. Hiring managers and in-house teams are realizing the benefits of creating long-term, collaborative relationships with dedicated freelancers who are ready to be part of their team.

By Lidia Varesco Racoma

Black woman at a laptop, looking up and smiling at camera

The freelance economy has recently experienced a boom, brought on partially by the pandemic, but also following an established trend showing that freelancers will be the majority of the workforce by 2027.

Upwork and Edelman Intelligence surveyed more than 6,000 U.S. freelancers for their report “Freelance Forward 2020” and found that 2 million workers joined the freelance economy in 2020, increasing the percentage of workers actively freelancing full-time by 8% and making freelancers 36% of the workforce.

In addition to the number of freelancers, the type of freelance work has also been changing due to companies hiring to quickly fill gaps in their workforce. As Harvard Business Review observed, “Organizations simply can’t reskill the capabilities of their existing workforce fast enough to meet their changing needs…companies will instead expand their use of contingent and contract hiring.” In fact, freelance needs for content, video and web have increased at most organizations.

These changes in freelancing have also been felt in the association world. Here are insights and predictions from freelancers who work with association clients as well as hiring managers in the association industry.

Why associations hire freelancers

According to Upwork’s 2020 survey, companies mainly turn to freelancers for ongoing strategic partnerships across multiple projects, with an average length of engagement of four months. And recent surveys from Freelancer.com show that 66% of companies will be increasing their use of freelancers (relatively steady from the previous year of 61%).

Willis Turner, CAE, President & CEO of Old Clayburn Marketing & Management Services Inc. which specializes in association events, shared that his organization hires freelancers for projects that are short-term and time-sensitive: “We love the quick turnaround and responsiveness available by hiring qualified freelancers.”

The Upwork survey also shows top freelance hiring areas are virtual event planning, thought leadership and building an online presence. Sherry Budziak, CEO and founder of .orgSource, which helps associations improve operational efficiencies and create growth strategies, echoes this: “Over the last few years, we have significantly increased hiring…and content marketing is increasingly popular.”

How the work has changed

During the pandemic, associations had to quickly convert their in-person events and programming to a virtual format, often creating a gap in their internal staff capabilities.

Turner commented that their hiring frequency increased during the pandemic—specifically the hiring of videographers for virtual and hybrid events. Marketing strategist Denise Gavilan of Gavilan & Associates, LLC also observed that associations had an increased need for freelance crisis management and communications that addressed members’ and attendees’ concerns regarding virtual events.

Digital branding and marketing also came to the forefront during the pandemic, with associations realizing they need to focus more on their digital presence. According to a Freelancers Union report, web designers and SEO specialists are two of the most in-demand freelance jobs in 2021. Budziak points out that they have kept busy helping associations “catch up” with integrating a digital approach into their overall strategy.

Digital marketing consultant Katherine Watier Ong of WO Strategies LLC comments that her digital-based workload has increased, leading her to pivot her business to focus on longer-term association website migration projects.

Member needs have also become more focused over the last year, often requiring outside help. Christina Frey, co executive director of the Editorial Freelancers Association, shared that they hired a freelance digital and web consultant to address current needs—however she anticipates it will continue long-term as they stay focused on digital offerings.

Julie Kalvaitis, Strategic Account Executive at recruiting and consulting services company Creative Circle, shared that their association clients have been requesting freelance support for developing the member journey and experience—as well as for creating the regular content that is expected of an association.

Some freelancers are also creating longer-term partnerships with associations, rather than focusing on one-off projects. Cynthia Mills, founder of The Leaders Haven, which provides coaching and consulting for associations, has seen an increased demand for strategy work with a desire for a longer commitment than simply facilitation: “Associations have a real interest in forming lasting partnerships.”

How the work environment has changed

The Upwork survey showed that prior to COVID-19, 64% of freelancers worked remotely and the majority of new freelancers are currently working remotely. Most freelancers interviewed echoed this and are working and conducting meetings virtually as they did pre-pandemic.

However, those who offer coaching or consulting services saw a decrease in travel. Mills had to transition her weekly in-person strategy and leadership development sessions to virtual. However, she noted that many clients found that they felt more focused and got further along in the virtual environment.

Mills also pointed out another benefit of the virtual environment: “[We can] serve more clients without being depleted from travel—[clients] can get a better us.” And graphic designer Cara Capizzi of Capizzi Designs shared that it was now easier to “meet”  clients who are not local due to the popularity of video calls.

Predictions for the freelance future

There are currently several trends that look to shape the future freelance landscape—and specifically for the association industry.

  1. New ways of hiring freelancers

New tools exist for hiring freelancers. The Mom Project is specifically designed to help women remain active in the workforce in every stage of their journey as working parents. Many of the roles posted to The Mom Project are on a freelance basis. Plus, the site offers resources for both employers and job seekers. 

Other new models of hiring and supporting freelancers have also emerged such as Wethos and Experfy, which focus on freelance teams.

  1. Gen Z influencing the workplace

    According to Upwork’s 2020 survey, all generations are represented however Gen Z leads the pack at 50% of the total freelance workforce so they may lead changes in the landscape regarding remote work, flexibility, technology. And as this Gallup article shows, younger generations are also leading the effort to make workplaces more diverse and inclusive.
  2. Embracing a flexible workplace

Organizations are already starting to adopt hybrid or otherwise flexible work environments. According to Harvard Business Review “Organizations that offer employees flexibility over when, where and how much they work, see 55% of their work force as high performers.”

Mills also sees a trend of associations becoming more comfortable with virtual work and as she explained above, some of her coaching clients are seeing a benefit from it.

  1. Digital marketing in the forefront

Ong predicts that associations will continue to rely on digital marketing freelancers, in particular for SEO as they continue to focus on their web presence. A recent Freelancers Union article agrees with this observation as they listed SEO Specialist as one of the most in-demand freelance jobs for 2021. 

Emily Patterson of Bee Measure, which helps nonprofits use data and research comments that associations have already started allocating budgets to digital: “They are wanting to track how things are performing.” She sees associations increasing their digital marketing and evaluation freelance needs in the future.

  1. New way of approaching events

Hybrid events look to be a solution for many associations as they tend to draw a larger audience and increase the number of potential attendees—and in turn, potential new members.

Capizzi envisions that associations will continue to need ongoing freelance assistance with technology related to virtual or hybrid events, such as live streaming or event app development.

  1. Innovation and agile thinking will lead the way

Associations have already tapped into innovation to change the way they view their events and programs. According to a McKinley Advisors 2020 report “Associations noted that their leadership is now meeting more frequently and is more proactively implementing changes.”

Mills shared that she found it inspiring to “watch and be part of the extraordinary responsiveness of the association community.” She noted that risk averseness was reduced by necessity while innovation was given an opportunity to grow within shorter timetables.

  1. Addressing acute and specific member needs

The 2020 edition of McKinley Advisors’ Association Viewpoint showed that associations’ member challenges and needs have become more acute and specific—and these needs are increasingly being addressed by freelancers.Frey pointed out that working with a freelancer allows them to stay focused on their digital offerings that address the needs of members who don’t reside close to a chapter or cannot attend in-person events.

  1. Freelancers are part of the team

Gavilan has always positioned herself as an extension of her client’s team and she sees this being amplified at associations in the future, rather than considering freelancers as temporary help. The Upwork survey also showed that 61% of organizations say working with external talent has the added benefit of keeping their current employees up-to-date.

About the Author

Lidia Varesco Racoma of Lidia Varesco Design in Chicago empowers associations and nonprofits to make a change through strategic branding and marketing design. She is a blogger and speaker and leads branding and creative marketing workshops for nonprofits and small businesses around the world. Lidia Varesco Design celebrated 20 years in business in November 2020.

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