Last month, I stepped down as an organizer of the Phoenix chapter of Freelance Spark. (Organizers in other cities stepped down as well.) I started volunteering with Freelancers Union in January 2015, holding my first event in February at GangPlank in Chandler. Soon, videographer Ita Udo-Ema joined me as a co-organizer, before I went solo in order to move the event to CoHoots in downtown Phoenix on October 2015 in hopes of drawing a larger crowd. Our June meeting would’ve been tomorrow (Wednesday) so I wanted to give an explanation.
From the beginning of my volunteer stint, I noticed two things. First, it became immediately apparent that the Freelancers Union staff (which doesn’t include many former or current freelancers) wanted to basically run the show with very little feedback from volunteers—even going so far as to provide “scripts” in each month’s material for us to read aloud, often to promote their own health insurance offerings or initiatives. And second, I noticed that this non-profit, whose goal is (supposedly) to help freelancers thrive and grow, was instead invested in how much additional work it could get from volunteers. What more could chapter leaders be doing? Early on, I remember leaving a Google Hangout for this very reason. It was exhausting.
At one point, Spark wanted to reprint one of my blog posts, and asked me for a photograph. When I asked for specs, they sent me a laundry list that would be more appropriate for a paid graphic designer or photographer to receive from a client: body turned towards camera, high resolution (non blurry/grainy), landscape orientation (not square), negative space–the more the merrier–around your entire silhouette (except for the bottom, no part of you touches the edge of the photo), minimum resolution: 72 dpi, minimum dimensions: 700 px tall, 900px wide, at least 300KB,” it read in part. Of course, they forgot to add a link to the original post until I wrote back in with a reminder. Priorities, amirite?
Freelance Spark seems to cater to fledgling freelancers, rather than established professionals, focusing its campaigns on things like legislation in New York (which wouldn’t affect many members) and a laundry list of unpaid invoices by its members that it’s titled “the world’s longest invoice” (in spite of the fact that pointing to plight of unpaid freelance work doesn’t exactly help the profession, or how it’s perceived by others). But it wasn’t lost on even the greenest attendees that the curriculum provided was of increasingly poor quality. Perhaps as a byproduct of material that wasn’t applicable to most of the people in the room, attendance to meetings dwindled. Even when many people RSVPed for events, only few would show up, and I got used to recycling unused material at the end of the night month after month. On multiple occasions, our gathering had just one or two attendees. I found myself wondering whether it was worth it, but discussing it with the Freelancers Union powers that be was pointless, as they provided little feedback or assistance.
Some of these issues came to a head in our Slack channel when a Freelancers Union staffer decided that we would all be charging for events going forward to prevent no-shows. Not all organizers were thrilled with the idea of asking members to pay for events we were hosting as volunteers, in space generously provided free of charge, but we were never even asked.
In response to growing conversation and actual feedback from its unpaid volunteers, Freelancers Union leaders decide to shut down the discussion and send out a survey. In response to my concerns with Freelance Spark meetups, I was sent an email and asked to hop on the phone with two organizers so that we could discuss my tone.
I had already been planning to resign because I didn’t feel like my volunteer work was making a positive impact, because the material seemed meaningless, and because–after months of this–I didn’t envision a possibility for change. But I was waiting for a scheduled happy hour (as a way to say thanks to our hosts) and for a session on security for small businesses, which I was asked to help develop curriculum for. Prior to being asked to create written material, I was asked to be on a panel (which never happened). As I was surveying chapter leaders for information to cover (something, incidentally, that Spark hadn’t really ever done when designing curriculum), a Freelancers Union organizer asked me to tack on information on IP and copyright, which is not only problematic for multiple reasons, but also out of scope. After agreeing to multiple requests to help with this session, I was then asked to hop on the phone to essentially repitch the idea. Later, the scheduled talk was quietly removed from the calendar.
How many freelancers haven’t had this problem? Someone asks you to do something, then when you agree, asks you to explain how you’re qualified and essentially pitch it to them? It’s annoying when it’s paying work, and honestly a little bit insulting for unpaid work. Freelancers Union relies on unpaid volunteers, and apparently views our time as expendable. I’m not sure how it distinguishes between “promoting the interests of independent workers” and promoting its own interests through the unused and unacknowledged (let alone unpaid) labor of independent workers, which is how I knew it was time to say goodbye.
After a year and a half of being dismissive of concerns, it’s hard to say whether Freelancers Union will be able to rebuild trust with its cadre of volunteers, or demonstrate that its staffers are familiar with freelancing and care about the needs of independent workers (beyond soliciting unpaid labor and trying to sell insurance). Running a successful remote group of volunteers isn’t easy even when it’s done properly, and I can’t even imagine how hard it would be when done wrong.
I did make some great connections through Spark, so not all was lost. And information wants to be free. In addition to teaching multiple workshops on online privacy and security for small businesses at my coworking space, and cohosting several events at another coworking space and the downtown library, I’ve already started organizing informal meetups for networking and troubleshooting sessions without forced curriculum, and without being asked to push a dismissive and out-of-touch organization’s agenda. Here’s to mutual assistance and the spirit of d.i.y., which drew a lot of us to freelancing in the first place.