should I give away my ideas for free when I’m looking for a paying job?

A reader writes:

I interviewed with a nonprofit two years ago and didn’t get the job. I also donate a small amount of money every month to the organization — like $25 per month. The group had a phone-a-thon the other day and called me to get my opinion on a variety of their issues. I answered the questions so well that the executive director now wants to meet with me to discuss my ideas. All the topics they want to know about are what I would be doing for them if they hired me two years ago. There was no mention of possibly getting a job and I don’t know of any available now that matches my background. I obviously want to provide meaningful insight but I’m unemployed and want to be paid for my expertise as well. How should I handle this meeting?

It’s natural for you to think, “If you thought I had something to offer, why didn’t you hire me when I applied two years ago?” But there are many possible reasons for their decision at the time — a surplus of great candidates, a concern about how your style would mesh with the manager’s, or limitless other ways in which you could be valuable but not exactly the right fit.

In order to make the most of the situation right now, try your best not to feel any bitterness over that. And remind yourself that what’s happening now is exactly how people form connections that lead to them getting jobs later. When you hear people say that one of the best ways to get a job is through connections and networking, this is the type of thing they mean — but it probably won’t come with money at the start.

Now, before I go on, let me be clear that what I’m about to say applies to nonprofits, since they routinely ask for and use the help of volunteers who support their work, rather than for-profit companies, where the idea of free labor would generally be odd.

I don’t recommend going into the meeting asking to get paid for your input right off the bat. They don’t yet know enough about you to know if that’s something they’re interested in paying you for or not. Plus, paying for your expertise in this area might not be an option for them; nonprofits often have limited budgets that may or may not include funds for consultants. However, there are two ways this could eventually lead to a paid opportunity for you:

1. At the end of this meeting, if it’s gone well, you could offer to work with them further, saying something like, “I have limited volunteer time, but I support what you’re doing and I’d be very interested in working out a per-project or hourly rate.”

2. By creating a relationship with the organization and demonstrating your expertise and value, you will have established yourself as a strong candidate for job openings in the future. They may also refer you to others they know. You should explicitly mention that you’re job-searching, and especially that you applied for a job with them earlier. Tell them you’d love to be kept in mind for future positions, and ask them to mention you to others they know who are looking for someone who does what you do.

Of course, all that said, since this is an organization that you support with a monthly donation, presumably you’re personally invested in its mission and want to see it succeed. So even if this opportunity doesn’t ultimately lead you to paying work, you’ll still have contributed to a cause you care about with something meaningful.