I've been in conversation with many professional speakers in both the UK and the US over the past two weeks. One topic of conversation has been the increasing number of requests we receive to speak in return for a donation to charity.
The speaking profession, and the members thereof, are the most generous and giving people I've ever come across. Each of us has our own charities and causes that we support, in our own private ways. In addition, many of us offer greatly reduced fees for charity events. Now and again, we speak for free.
For many years, I, along with many other speakers, have received requests to speak for free, from organisations who have limited funds. I don't mind them asking, and I have a policy of accepting a maximum of one such request each month. Many other speakers have similar policies.
Of late, the requests often come in this form. "We'd like you to speak at our event. We recognise that you are a professional, so we are offering a reasonable fee. Would you be free on this date?" Sometimes the fee is specified, sometimes not. If the date is free, I make a provisional booking and pass the details on to my business manager. A couple of days later comes another call. "Alan, all of the other speakers have agreed to donate their fees to charity (always a good cause, such as a hospice, or cancer charity).Would you agree to do that same?". Now I have a problem. I've confirmed that I'm free on the date. I've expressed interest, maybe even agreed a fee. I now have to either appear uncharitable, by insisting on receiving a fee, or decline to speak, citing some excuse. It's an insidious form of blackmail, in my opinion. On one occasion when I did appear under these conditions, I asked to see evidence of the charity donation. The organisers told me it wasn't possible, and that I should show more trust in them.
I know many professional speakers who have received similar approaches. There's often a rider attached, such as "Of course, we'll be promoting you to our database, and you may meet people who want to purchase your services". The unstated irony is that I am delivering my services effectively for nothing at the event itself. Since I receive most of my income from speaking fees, I am effectively under-valuing my professional expertise by appearing.
I've never met a caterer, a venue hire manager, or a security team, who were asked to donate their event fees to charity. My advice to professional speakers is to be careful of "fee to charity" events. They may be genuine, and you may decide to take them. If you do, be sure that there really is a fee to charity. If you decide to decline the request don't feel guilty about it.