To volunteer or not to volunteer: pros, cons and golden rules

By Felicity Pearce

For translators and interpreters, the question of volunteering can be a difficult one. There are always many (too many?) volunteering options available, but doing it simply to give back, without any further consideration, can put us in a vulnerable position.  We need to ensure it is worthwhile for us in terms of professional experience, and that it is not something the organization should be paying for.

The best option can be to volunteer through official channels, such as UNV or Translators without Borders, which will mean the validity of the need for a volunteer will have been checked and approved already. This means you are not providing a free service for an organization that will make a profit from your service, and also ensures you will receive official recognition for your collaboration, which will look good on your CV or when applying for membership with professional bodies.

Of course, deciding to take on pro-bono projects is always at our own discretion, so if a project comes along that really appeals, in terms of experience or networking, it can be worthwhile too.

Three reasons to volunteer:

  1. The warm, fuzzy feeling. We are very privileged to have the choice to work as freelancers and in a profession we are passionate about. Volunteering for me is a way of being thankful for the fortunate circumstances that have allowed me the education and opportunities that have got me here.
  2. Fantastic experience. As a translator, it can give you the opportunity to develop your specialism(s), and usually with great communication and feedback from the organization you are working with. For interpreters, it can even include free travel to an exotic location.
  3. Networking. It also helps build a larger network, and you never know where your next referral may come from…

Three rules for volunteering:

  1. Have a strategy. Assess how much time you can afford to dedicate to it and stick to that. Think about which areas and language combinations you are looking for. Decide what sort of organizations are most appealing and focus on a few. Taking on thousands of words on various topics and in five different language combinations will be much more work and will not help you to focus on your specialisms.
  2. Communicate. One of the best parts of working pro-bono is that the receiver of your work is usually grateful for your collaboration and respectful of the professional job you are doing, so they will be open to questions and suggestions with regard to the project (more like working with direct clients than agencies, we could say). Personally, I have established some great relationships through volunteer work.
  3. Be professional. It goes without saying, but just because you are not issuing an invoice, there is no reason for volunteer work to be anything but your usual high standard. Stick to workloads that can reasonably coexist with your paid work. There can often be more room to negotiate delivery dates at the beginning of the project, as the organization may have not worked with a translator before, for example. But when the details are agreed, a deadline is a deadline.

We’d love to know more about your volunteering experiences, good and bad – please feel free to share here!

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