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What this socially conscious designer can teach nonprofits about working with freelancers

Jackie Renan. May 30, 2017 Category: ColumnFeaturedLongPeople

Make It Work is a column by Justine Haemmerli that takes a peek into the lives of folks with unconventional careers — the entrepreneurs wearing many hats, the doers of many things, the folks with full-time jobs and big side hustles — to shine a light on those doing good in unique and creative ways.

Jackie Renan is making it work.


She’s not sure.

Ask her again in six months.

From the outside, it seems like she is. For the past 13 years, Jackie has appeared to be a success story for freelancing. She is a graphic designer who has had one client for over a decade and dabbled in a number of various socially conscious design projects that move her heart.

She called her own shots — so it seemed. Things feel different from where she’s sitting.

“I think it’s that nine-to-five mentality that has me stuck,” she told me over a chai latte and lox bagel at the Seven Stones café in Media. “I am still in that and fighting against it regularly. Even feeling the permission to come here for lunch and not then having to make up a certain number of hours in the evening — that’s taken me a long time to learn. Trusting that I get my work done, and I get it done well, and that doesn’t have to happen within that eight-hour chunk.”

Like so many of us who work to make it work, Jackie is at a midpoint in her process: the liminal space between working a job and being self-employed. That space where you are stretched between safety and freedom, lulled by the siren’s song of each, and frightened by each as well.

And so we continue doing work that doesn’t move our hearts because it feels safer. And it raises the question — how can socially conscious organizations and enterprises attract great talent by not just leading with their mission, but also an appeal to folk’s need for stability?


2014 was a time in Jackie’s life that was full of questions, curiosity, suspended disbelief and introspection. She started the study of Reiki, a Japanese healing methodology that uses the laying of hands and shifting of energy to promote wellness and balance, and meeting different kinds of people. She was talking about energy grids and spirit guides. She was hosting salon-style dinner parties with radical social workers and healers.

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And she was still working her regular gig with an insurance company for which she designed marketing materials and table top displays for industry conferences.

This ability to toe the line between two worlds — to code switch between the woo-woo and the J.Crew — is what makes Jackie great at her job. She is in many ways a translator. Her clients come with a feeling or an idea they want to express, and it is her job to manifest it through the language of images, color, texture and fonts.

But as much as she is able to hold space for the wacky, murky, unclear and and unformed for her clients, in her own work and life Jackie has struggled to move away fully from the traditional and easily defined. This has made it hard to fully embrace the freelancer lifestyle.

And so, a year ago, Jackie decided to sell her South Philly rowhouse, which in many ways represented the structured emptiness she had found previously herself in, and instead rented a kitschy wicker-filled house with fish wallpaper down at the Jersey Shore where she could live for the winter.

The laws of attraction were summoned. Outside of her old life, old habits and old patterns, new work started to come her way. She redesigned the branding for the Groothie, a health drink that is now sold in Saxbys. She worked with charitable organizations such as ImprovingBirth, Mama Love Doula Service, The Love, Vaughn Foundation, Sister to Sister: The Women’s Heart Health Foundation and NephCure Kidney International.

And still, one day a week she continued to drive to West Chester, where she dutifully went into the office to work on insurance collateral.

“You still do that?” I asked, surprised.

“I do,” she sighed. “I want to do a good job for them; they’re good people, and I’m grateful for the opportunities they have afforded me to be entrepreneurial and freelance. I’m grateful for the stability they’ve offered me. And, it’s also that mentality again — they asked me to be there in person, and even though it’s not the most productive way for me to work for them, it’s that old way of thinking. That I need to have something that looks and feels more like a job.”


Yet the more her mind expanded, the more her work felt constricting. It became more important to Jackie to put her design skills to use for initiatives and projects that meant something to her. She realized that her technical expertise could be used for social good.

But she struggled with the questions faced by so many creative professionals and folks with valuable technical skills — who would be tremendous additions to do-gooder organizations that need support telling their stories and sharing their missions. Where to start? How to find organizations that need my skill set? How to get a foot in the door when I’m transitioning across sectors?

For many of these folks, even the lexicon of the nonprofit sector is unfamiliar, making it difficult for them to know what positions to search.

This raises the question of how nonprofit leaders can better reach talent that yearns to do good work for organizations doing good, yet who might have no idea where to begin. Even simple steps such as translating between the language of the for-profit and nonprofit worlds, and connecting the dots between skill sets that could have reciprocity, such as fundraising and sales; marketing and communications; project management and program coordination; partnerships and business development — this could help professionals like Jackie better understand where to plug into the businesses and organizations that could use them the most.

“It’s more than making something pretty or that will help sales,” Jackie said. “I help my clients tell a story that they need to share in order to achieve their mission, which truly helps others. And they struggle to do it on their own.”


As proof the universe was listening, Jackie stumbled across an article about Philly web designer Adrian Hoppel and his work in the gift economy: creating website projects without contract or fees, in exchange for a gift — sometimes money, sometimes not — that the client felt was commensurate with the value of the product.

Jackie was moved by this. She reached out to Hoppel on a lark, and they had an instant connection around their shared values. Five months later she was elbow deep in over 20 projects that he had brought her in on as a collaborator. This was her first foray into truly trying to be a freelancer.

She was learning a ton. She was meeting new people and working in new ways.

And not getting paid.

“I probably worked on about 20 projects before I stopped and really put my foot down, along with the other freelancers, that we needed to change the structure of things,” Jackie said. “And I mean it was a learning experience for all of us. Adrian went from just being a one-person show to being a company with tons of people overnight, and people took advantage of the honesty and trust in the gift economy.

“That was its own kind of lesson,” she said — the lesson that she always needed a deposit upfront before doing any work. “They needed to have some skin in the game.”

She also learned about the kinds of projects she does, and doesn’t, want to work on — specifically, “the 2.0, when a company has already gone through the branding process, and lived with their brand for awhile, and now it’s time to re-envision their company and frame it in a new way, and shift their brand to match where they are now in their growth.”

Jackie happens to be going through that process for her own company right now, too.

“And it’s really, really hard!” she laughed.

“Isn’t that how it goes, huh? That’s what you do for others, and now you’re having to do it yourself?” I asked.

“It is. And it’s making me that much better at my work,” she said, leaning back and smiling.


We teach what we need to learn. As Jackie works on her own 2.0 — a new chapter of making it work in which she fully owns and embodies her career as a freelance graphic designer — she is actively supporting clients through navigating that space. She has a lot of questions, as well as an ever-increasing sense of peace.

She walks one path through that in-between place of letting things go to let things in, thus embodying the work and values you want to be doing in the world in more ways than just through your work: through your home, your surroundings, your community. And she’s recognizing that, when all of this has shifted and there are still pieces of the old that won’t budge, it might be that it’s actually your own hand that needs to loosen its grasp and let go.


Make It Work

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