Recently I had a very nice letter inviting me to write for a publication (quite high status) and a follow-up phone conversation to explore further. In the course of this, the London-based publisher emphasised that wanting to reach outside their heavily London-focused circle was a big priority for them. Who can guess the next bit of the conversation?
Having approached me with this request and explained why they wanted my input, they then told me about the fee. Don't get too excited. They hit me with the news that it would cost Macc £4000. Yes, we would have to pay them FOUR THOUSAND quid.
Clearly this sort of thing is a marketing strategy designed to lure you in - and it worked on me to the extent that it took a while before I’d worked out what the twist was going to be. Usually I’m onto that fairly quickly but not this time, because the pitch was impressive. Yet it was ultimately a wasteful exercise due to poor research - even the slightest bit of background checking on Macc would have told these people that as a small charity we would simply not have £4k to spend on something like this. That’s bigger than our marketing budget for a whole year - and would pay my salary for a good number of weeks.
This is something we get a lot – although it is a fairly extreme example and, perhaps, the most “establishment” one I’ve come across yet – where all sorts of assumptions are made which reveal something which is actually quite destructive. As a middle-aged white bloke in a full time job, I’m not going to add much in the way of visible diversity, so if I’m excluded from this, imagine who else is as well?
Similarly, I’m sure many charity leaders have had the experience of being asked to speak at professional conferences where the delegate price is upwards of £400 per day but when you ask for a fee… I had one example recently where I pushed back and said I’d speak if they would pay Macc for my time, but y’know it would be less than the ticket cost for one delegate. This was declined as something they ‘couldn’t afford’. I said I couldn't afford to agree with them.
What underlies both of these examples is that there is a trend – which I think is growing – of seeking to extract value from our organisations and leaders without putting anything back in. This really hit home as in recent days I’ve been following conversations on Twitter with some of my favourite sector speakers like Immy Kaur and Ruth Ibegbuna about the challenges they face as in-demand speakers at events (rightly so, they’re amazing) where you can end up being very popular but not actually getting paid very much, if anything, for your time and expertise. Immy in particular prompted a conversation about the challenges of getting paid by Universities – lots of people responded with the same experience: the only way they could get paid was for the university to employ them for as little as a couple of hours and pay them through payroll. It’s happened to me too: I even got a P45 ending my “employment” once I was paid for speaking to a seminar group. Almost wasn't worth the hassle. Never mind that such bureaucracy is a time-eater for all concerned, it does not exactly encourage more voices and experience to contribute, to advance thinking and debate.
Before going on, I need to fess up a little here: as a charity we regularly ask people to speak for free at our events but that’s because a) we almost never have a budget and b) we almost never charge for attendance – because our audience doesn’t have a budget (we always offer expenses). Most people are generous with their time and we’re very grateful. We’re no different in that to most of the rest of the sector.
And that may be where we can model something better, show how it should be done. This is a missed opportunity to strengthen each other – and in particular to ensure that we’re investing in the diverse voices who have insight and experience to share. The reason that’s a problem for civil society is that not much is being done to invest in our own development and recognising leadership as an asset - the exceptions to this are noteworthy when it should be routine practice. If we can’t nurture and support the pool of talent in our own sector and make it wider, nothing will change, especially if we keep extracting value from organisations which are actually trying to do something about tackling inequality and increasing diversity of all kinds (not only the recognised Equalities Act agenda).
I started out feeling fairly confident we do our bit to support more people to make their voices heard: to speak to an audience for the first time or to write their first article, make their first video. It’s not enough. There’s something about paying when you can – but not every organisation can genuinely afford to. There’s something about a collective investment, sharing and widening the range of voices we hear from. Something about support, encouragement and feedback. I think there’s some sort of pledge in here. I’m not entirely sure what it is as if it's too rigid it could be just as exclusive for smaller organisations. So if you have any ideas it would be great to hear them. I like the idea of the "inclusion rider" where those who are able to speak out use their power to ask questions: if it’s a priority for you to hear from a range of voices, the first question should be what are you doing differently to engage and support?