top of page
  • Writer's pictureBeth Wardell

What it is like to go Freelance at Fifty-Nine

Reflections six months on...

Culture Northumberland caught up with Rachel Adam, a mentor and consultant in the cultural sector, to find out what it is really like to go freelance at fifty-nine as she reflects on the last six months.

In autumn 2023, after a decade working as Director of Museums Northumberland bait the Creative People and Places (CPP) programme in South East Northumberland, I moved into freelance life.

The opportunity to have a more flexible way of working, alongside family commitments, was matched with some questions.

Would I enjoy a portfolio of projects, or would I miss leading a programme? How would my skills align with the freelance market? How could I still work with other people, in temporary teams?

I decided to give myself six months to find out whether this new way of working suited me and am now reflecting on the things I’ve learned.

Shared values

Before applying for any work, I wrote down the values and approach that I want to underpin what I do. This includes listening, collaboration, care, flexibility, and pragmatism. Some organisations write down their values and others don’t, but they drive how people work together. I have been very lucky that there has been a great alignment between my values and those of the people I am working with. 

Types of contracts

I’ve been working on different scale contracts, mostly lasting between 5 – 10 months, with just one piece of work that needed to be turned round in a fortnight. Working with clients over several months is perfect. It enables me to contribute to longer journeys and be part of a bigger picture, with time to reflect on the changes that are happening because of my input.

Breadth of practice

I am working with a mix of large and smaller organisations, temporary programmes, and individual artists. This is keeping me in touch with the breadth of the cultural sector ecology. It is something I really enjoyed in my CPP work and it now feels even closer to my day-to-day practice.

Peer support

I knew I would need to build my own peer support network. The second contract I pitched for was deliberately with another freelancer, and working together has added value to both of us, and to our client.

Over the last six months I have also linked up with three former CPP Directors and we are now known informally as Why’s Owls Consulting (with a winking owl logo). We have a monthly on-line ‘power hour’ where we can confidentially share things we are learning and observing, talk through any challenges, plus we can tender, and deliver work together.

Positive feedback

Everyone responds well to a pat on the back and the regularity of receiving positive feedback for my work is very affirming. It has also been a joy to see how sometimes a relatively short input of time (eg three mentoring sessions over five months) can have a big impact on how someone else is progressing their ambitions.

Pricing and managing time

More by accident than design, I’ve found out that when the client sets the rate of pay for a brief, there can be significant differences in the amount paid for effectively the same type of work. However, when I set the pay rate, this has been a straightforward process, though it did take a bit of nudging from The Why’s Owls.

Wearing a business hat, I’ve had to act on the advice I was given to ‘think more like a lawyer’ and set the clock whenever doing work for a client, while at the same time remaining flexible and responsive. It’s very easy for a quick 10min email or call to build up to an hour or more of unpaid time. My new weekly discipline (that I’m still getting used to) is to update the time log spreadsheet for each client.

Pipeline of contracts

I’ve also kept a log of the amount of time it takes to secure each contract. This has ranged from 2 to 7hrs, which all adds up. In six months, I’ve had a 70% success rate in tendering for work and realise I don’t know if that is a good, bad, or average rate of return (all feedback welcome).  Interestingly, the tenders that haven’t succeeded have felt as strong as the ones that have. However, what I really value is that I’m starting to build repeat work and the client relationships are central to the enjoyment of what I’m doing.  

New perspectives

Working freelance has also brought new perspectives to my role as a trustee of Queen’s Hall Arts. For example, I am much better at standing in the shoes of both the employed staff team and the freelance workforce. There have also been practical two-way benefits. For example, as part of a peer learning programme for teachers I am working on with Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums I was able to share a film about work with schools created by QHA.

Most of the teachers didn’t previously know about QHA and found the film very inspiring for developing their own school projects. It was a simple win-win moment.

Six months have flown by, and I have a draft plan for the next year, along with the motivating challenge of having 50% of my income secured. And I have answers to my three questions too (which I will review again in the autumn). I am enjoying the portfolio of work and so far, there seems to be a good fit with my skills. Working freelance hasn’t felt lonely for a minute, and I feel connected into a variety of teams and important agendas.

Big thanks to everyone who has played a part in enabling me, aged 59, to make this transition to freelance life.

You can follow Rachel on X (Twitter) and LinkedIn.

168 views1 comment

1 Comment

5 days ago

Best of luck continuing this journey Rachel. I certainly valued your input as a mentor and feel your skills are a perfect fit!


bottom of page