The Importance of Community – Part I
Justin Knechtel lives in between the cities of Seattle and Bellevue, Washington, on Mercer Island. As the founder of the Northwest Freelancers Association (NWFA), an independent nonprofit organization, Knechtel works with freelancers throughout the entire Pacific and Inland Northwest.
Knechtel also created and runs The Small Potatoes, which is a design and consulting agency made up of freelance professionals living and working in the Pacific Northwest. The Small Potatoes works with small businesses, nonprofits, and startups to provide services on a pay-what-you-can-afford model.
When researching the topic of civic mindedness in freelancers, Knechtel seemed like the kind of freelancer who would have a lot to talk about on the topic. I wasn’t disappointed.
Why is civic mindedness important to you?
I believe that we all have an individual responsibility for both creating and solving the problems in our local and regional economies, and as a business owner it’s important for me to find a place in my region where I can best contribute to the economic viability and future development of where my family lives and spends our time.
Resources are scarce and as our local economies continue to grow in both size and diversity, I think the only way to ensure they flourish and evolve with the growth is to find ways to contribute, rather than focusing on just yourself. If we all stay withdrawn from a more civic mindset and don’t invest our time in the replenishing for the future, then our communities will fall apart and cave in on themselves, which is not a place I want to live!
How do you get involved in the community?
One example is from a recent conversation the NWFA is having with a group called Washington Business Week, who provides summer business workshops for high school kids all over Washington state. Typically, programs like theirs are only accessible to bigger employers that can afford to provide funding and send employees to help mentor these kids. It’s a fantastic program, and the NWFA is looking to copy the program for the summer of 2012 so freelancers can be involved with area kids.
Using photography as an example, we can take a group of youth that are interested in photography and match them with a freelance photographer, as well as a local nonprofit that could use some professional photography service but doesn’t quite have the budget for it.
We provide the kids with cameras and they work alongside and under the mentorship of the professional photographer to solve the nonprofit’s need. The kids go through the project every step of the way, from concept and client meetings, to final production and delivery. The nonprofit gets their pictures, the kids have access to something previously out of reach, and the freelancer can give back to his or her community in a real way that will have a genuine impact.
By being involved with our community, we can begin to provide a genuine resource where freelancers, business owners, and community leaders can continually collaborate together and understand each other in a more meaningful way. We’re also looking at the future of the freelance profession, so putting together programs that encourage high school kids to see freelancing as a viable career option and know that the support will be there is very important to me and what we’re doing.
How has your business been affected by your community connection?
For the Northwest Freelancers Association, the effect has been extremely positive, surprising, and, at times, overwhelming. Once I sit down with someone and we start to talk about the goals of the Association, our struggles, and our progress, an amazing collaborative event takes place and ideas and relationships start to generate that ultimately bring us back to the community and some of the issues it has.
As the economy continues to suffer and evolve at the macro level, engagement with our communities helps to sustain us at the micro level. Communities rely on each other and are willing to provide support for each other, but you have to be committed to doing the same for others and not just taking when you need it.
By being involved with your community, you’re always top of mind and first on the list when someone could use your help. This is one of the major reasons why The Small Potatoes hasn’t had to update our website or market our services in roughly two years. As is the case for many of the more successful freelancers I know, our community involvement continues to fill our pipeline with opportunities and growth.
Why do you think civic mindedness should be important to freelancers?
Freelancers are in a unique position to be involved and engaged with, really, anything they want. However, because many freelancers work in solitude and run their businesses completely independent of outside support, they lack a lot of the community and relational benefits that other small businesses take advantage of.
For example, if I own a fish store that provides fresh seafood and wine, I have customers (local community members) that are constantly coming through my doors that I interact with and get to know. I also know my business neighbors—let’s say a barber on one side and a flower shop on the other—and we all share the same struggles and success as we run our businesses. The exchange of ideas, insight, and activity between the three of us gets compounded when we’re all three involved in our local community through our customers.
Freelancers, on the other hand, typically don’t have this sort of relationship with their customers or neighbors. If I’m a freelance web designer, all of my customer communication may be via email and phone calls; my vendor or business partners might consist of automatic payments for hosting or software. There is a lack of community involvement only because they don’t try. Freelancers work in the coffee shop but don’t interact with the owner, staff, or other customers. Rather, they just sit with their laptop and headphones and work for a few hours, then leave.
By adopting a more civic mindset, freelancers can apply their skills, knowledge, creativity, and network to contribute to the overall health of their community, which will ultimately put them on the radar of tons of potential clients and partners that never knew they even existed. We also need a break from the need to stay busy and productive 24/7, and being more involved either politically or socially will provide an enormous mental benefit.