In The Spotlight: Laura Ellen Kennedy – Transforming Words Into Impact

In The Spotlight: Laura Ellen Kennedy
In this series, we interview freelancers about how they make a positive impact using their careers. This week, we’re talking to Laura Ellen Kennedy,

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Laura is a seasoned writer and editor whose journey led her from the world of women’s and teen magazines to the heart of the third sector.

With clients such as WWF, UNICEF, The UN Refugee Agency, the British Red Cross, to name a few, Laura’s wealth of experience speaks volumes about her expertise in the field.

We talked to Laura about her transition from full-time work to freelancing, the art of balancing parenthood and a freelance career, some of her favourite projects and insights into overcoming challenges as a freelancer.

Q: Can you share your journey from working full-time to becoming a freelancer – what motivated this transition?

I’d been working at Save the Children for 8.5 years, including one year maternity leave, and suppose I got a sort of ‘7-year itch’. 

I’d grown and learned a lot from incredible colleagues there. I felt like I’d sort of ‘grown up’ there as a creative, having moved sector from magazines in 2008 and relearned the rules of writing for this new context. 

But I knew there was a world of different organisations out there to discover, with different visions and ways of working. So curiosity and craving for variety was a big driver.

I also felt like I needed to take charge of my work-life balance. I wanted an ebb and flow of busy and quiet, rather than constantly operating at 100%. Being an introvert, I realised I don’t thrive on that pace unless there’s down time for quiet reflection between projects, and I hadn’t been able to carve that out for myself or my team in the role I was in.

On one level it felt like a dizzying leap to go freelance. I wondered if I was crazy to quit a great job with no new one lined up. But on another level it also felt obvious, necessary and sort of now-or-never. 

On the practical side, my kids were about to start school, and I wasn’t sure how I’d manage wrap-around care and school holidays. It was a big change for them and I wanted to be around for it.

I had also, very fortunately, managed to put away some savings to allow me to take a short break and then build up a client list gradually.

Q: You have worked with both UK-based charities and international organisations like Unicef and WWF. How do these experiences differ, and do you approach projects with international clients differently?

Because I started in the sector with a big international organisation, that’s the way of working that felt normal to me: collaborating with lots of people who are experts in their niche. I didn’t need to be an all-rounder, because there was always a colleague to ask – whether it was working with digital marketers to hone copy for email or social in a way their metrics proved would work, or with a media team to pull out the newsworthy messages from a report.

Sometimes it could feel a little frustrating that every decision was by committee, or there was always one more round of changes – with more stakeholders than you could cram in a meeting room.

But in much smaller charities, I was amazed to discover this world of one-person communications teams who were expected to do everything – strategy, brand, crisis communication, PR, social, the list goes on – making all the decisions without that rich pool of expertise to draw on. I guess you can either think of it as liberating or terrifying. Maybe a bit of both.

On the flip side of that I think in smaller organisations you might get clearer sense of your own impact, and closer connection with your cause’s community.

On a micro or craft level, actually writing and editing for international audiences is quite different. It’s a discipline to let go of idiomatic language, forget about alliteration, rhythm as well as clever wordplay, because it won’t necessarily translate. And for audiences who are reading in their second or third language, it’s not accessible.

Q: Among the various projects you’ve undertaken, is there one that particularly stands out to you?

Of my recent ones, a couple of projects spring to mind. One because it felt globally important, so I was proud to be involved: copyediting and working on launch messaging for a report by Lumos about orphanage-related trafficking. It exposes some of the problems with both voluntourism and well-intentioned but under-informed funding going into orphanages, which can end up harming rather than helping children. 

The other project mainly because it was just fun: I helped sexual health CIC SH24 with a website migration, updating and making over the content as we went. I enjoyed it because it was with a lovely team, I got to use a new content management system, and I was writing directly for people managing their own health, which meant being extra mindful of accessibility and inclusivity – a good discipline to practise.

Q: How do you go about selecting the causes and projects that resonate with you? What factors weigh most heavily in your decision-making process when considering a new project opportunity?

To be honest, my decision-making process is usually a more practical one! Am I booked up? Can I do a good job? 

Some work I’ll do just out of interest rather than for a cause as such – not many people are in a position to be able to just choose the ‘perfect’ jobs. And if I’ve said yes to a job, I wouldn’t drop out of that because something I felt more strongly about came along. That might mean I miss out, but I want my clients to trust that I’m reliable.

The beauty of freelancing is you can balance one job with another – a bit of private sector work that teaches you something new, a bit of not-so-fun work for a team or organisation you love. 

There are so many different ways of doing good – I try to stay open to different stories rather than having strict rules. I remember early on in my career, when I was still working in teen magazines, reading a newspaper story about a tattoo artist who worked with women who’d been held captive and branded, turning those marks into beautiful designs that helped the women move on. I realised then I couldn’t even imagine all the different ways people offer love and support to each other and make the world better.

Q: Freelancing often comes with its unique set of challenges. What are some of the challenges you’ve faced in your freelance career, and how have you overcome them?

The main, obvious challenge is not knowing where the next bit of work is coming from and when.

If you can figure out a way to enjoy the quiet times – for example, dipping into personal or side-hustle projects while you reach out for jobs, that can help you feel ready and rested when the work does come.

Then of course all the work can come at once, and the challenge is to figure out how much you can say yes to without being in danger of letting someone down. It was at a time of real stretch for me that I was able to set a maximum number of clients I was comfortable taking on at once. It took me crossing that line to find it! But now it’s easier to say ‘no’ when I need to, when I’m close to that number.

So I guess my advice would be that there’s always wisdom to be found in those difficult moments if you can look for it. When you’re freelance no-one is going to set those boundaries for you. So you have to figure out where yours are and try to communicate them unapologetically.

Q: As a parent and a freelancer, you manage multiple responsibilities. Could you share some insights into how you balance your freelance career with family life? Do you have any tips or strategies that have helped you maintain this balance effectively?

The right balance is going to be different for everyone. What works for me isn’t going to be right for someone else.

Just yesterday as I walked my kids to school, another parent walked past us while joining a conference call. She just explained to her team that she was going to mute herself for the 5 minutes until she’d dropped them off, briefly outlined a point she’d want to cover later in the meeting, then muted and finished a conversation with her children while keeping one ear on the call. I was in awe. But I know I’d be stressed thinking I was only half-listening to both my colleagues and my kids if that was me.

So I just try to be honest, clear and guilt-free about when I’m comfortable being ‘on’ and when I’m not. And I say no to work when I sense I can’t give what’s needed without taking over my family time.

But I don’t always get it right, nobody can. I don’t think I’ve ever missed a hard deadline, but I’ve asked to push one or two softer ones, or let my kids sit too long in front of screens while I hit them.

It’s trial and error like everything in life. Find your boundaries by crossing them, and then paint them in bright colours so you don’t cross them again.

Q: And lastly, what advice would you give to freelancers who aspire to work with charitable organisations and make a positive impact through their work? 

The advice you give is often the advice you most need to take yourself I think! 

Having reached a point where I have a client list and range of experience I’m proud of, I feel I need to go back to scratch and be more intentional about what I want my next phase to look like. 

But I’d say nothing beats just reaching out to people you want to work with and telling them why you admire what they do and what you want to offer in support of that.

If you’re not sure who that is yet, have some fun trying to find out. Research it, be interested in anyone and everyone trying to make change happen. Think about the change you’d like to see in the world and seek out other people working on the same ideas.

To discover how Laura can help you achieve your goals through her writing and editing expertise, visit her website and connect with her on LinkedIn.

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