Thursday, July 29, 2010

Is it fair to have your speaking fee donated to charity?

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.


Jay said...

Alan - I think you make a very good point. As I always tell my clients. I would very much like to do what I do for nothing - I am one of the lucky few that would continue to work if
1) I did the lottery & therefore
2) I won it :)
3) Asda stopped charging me when I wanted some groceries!!!

All in all you have committments you need to keep with people who would like you to pay them for their goods and services. Surely they understand that - or maybe they don't get paid for what they do either!???

Ayd Instone said...

Thanks Alan. It's good to hear this sort of taboo discussed. I've donated my fee to charity a few times - but it's always been to the charity of MY choosing and control.

My angle has been that when I want to donate to a charity, I'll do it in my own way, in my own time and without fanfare. Otherwise as you say, it's tantamount to blackmail and begging.

Your point is interesting: why are the speakers singled out and not other suppliers? Did the chap who suggested you donate your fee suspend his salary for the duration too? Probably not.

Occasionally, events like Live Aid come along where everyone donates their time for the big cause. In the meantime I'll pick and choose which causes I officially sponsor.

Joanna said...

Alan, very pleased that you touched on this subject. I, too, thought supporting charity was a good thing. Then reality sinks in. Speakers are expected to help with publicity but when ask for their own promotion 'We don't have the resources' is often the answer.

Charities receive funding and their staff, a salary. Who would support speakers after we donated our fees? It would be fairer if EVERYONE didn't get paid to support a fundraising event.

I still support charities - but in my private way and choose the cause that resonates.

Mindset Shifter said...

Alan - well argued, it is a dilemma speakers face regularly. I had a different spin on this today - a potential client asking me to speak at his conference for a cut of the proceeds. He proceeded to show me how much I could make if he attracted the audience he was expecting. My position was that if he was so confident why didn't he just pay me my fee and keep the balance for himself? The point is that speakers take years to build a good speech or two from their expertise and should feel comfortable declining charitable requests if it doesn't suit.