Counting time

Last week, I received an email from an Ontario public institution asking me to do a presentation on family law and violence against women at an upcoming program for its professional staff. This was not unusual: I receive frequent invitations to speak at conferences, fundraising events, schools, universities and events like Take Back the Night and December 6th.

I was interested in both the topic and the audience, so I responded to say so, but wanted answers to some questions before I made a final decision. How many participants would there be? What, exactly was expected of me? How long would my part of the day-long program be? Would I need to produce a paper? And, finally, what is always the most difficult question for me to ask: what are you proposing to pay me for my time and expenses?

To pay or not to pay?

While some speakers – politicians and celebrities of other sorts – can count on being paid (and, in many cases, extremely well paid) for appearing at an event, the same is not true for most of the rest of us. We may be “in demand,” but, too often, there is an expectation that, if we really care about the issue we have been asked to speak about, we should be prepared to do so for nothing.

Sad to say, I have become almost used to not being offered money to speak at events, but a recent experience where, not only was there no fee or expense coverage but I was also expected to pay a $300+ fee to register for the conference I had been asked to speak at, really took me aback.

Before I learned this, I had decided that, despite the time involved to write and give the presentation and the cost of getting to and from the conference (far enough away that I had to spend a night in a hotel), I would accept the invitation to speak. The topic was a new one for me, and I was happy to have an excuse to research and write about it. And, I could combine the conference travel with a visit with out-of-town grandchildren.

However, the idea that I would be expected to pay the registration fee – even a special “reduced” rate because I was a speaker — took things too far. After some back and forth with the organizers, the requirement that I pay the registration fee was waived, but I found the whole process disrespectful and somewhat humiliating.


In the instance with which I started this piece, the response I got to my question about a speaker fee was that, since the institution is a not-for-profit entity, it does not generally pay people who come in to speak at special programs. Perhaps an exception could be made in my case, if I would be so kind as to suggest what I was hoping for by way of a fee.

In my world, filled as it is with small, grassroots non-profit organizations that scramble to meet their annual budgets, institutions like hospitals, school boards, universities and colleges are just not in the same category, even if they are, legally, not-for-profit entities. They have annual budgets in the millions and millions of dollars, mostly funded by government. They raise millions more through fundraising. No doubt, the entertainment budgets of some of their senior executives would keep a small shelter afloat for more than a month or two.

They may be a not-for-profit, but they can find the money to pay a speaker like me.

I love to speak

I welcome invitations to speak. I enjoy speaking and think I do a decent job of it. I like the opportunity to help people understand the issues I am passionate about. But I also like speaking at events because it lets me meet people whose perspectives I can learn from. I seldom leave an event where I have spoken without taking away something new to add to my own pool of knowledge. And, often, I am offered a fee that is respectful and reasonable.

Like most other freelancers I know, I frequently speak for free or a reduced fee. (For example, I never charge a fee to speak at grassroots Take Back the Night, December 6th or International Women’s Day events.)

However, as with most other freelance speakers I know, I need to make a living. This is not a hobby; it is my job. I am self-employed. I don’t have a workplace pension to look forward to. I don’t have employer-funded sick or vacation days. I don’t have a company credit card for my travel expenses.

I also don’t want to feel as though I am asking for a favour when I say I need to be paid.

Valuing time accurately

As I mulled over the request I received last week, I was reminded of a blog I read several months ago by Helen Kara, an American researcher, writer and speaker, in which she explored the issue of trying to explain why she charges what she does for speaking engagements.

She listed the many tasks that go into a one-hour speaking commitment that fall outside that one-hour:

  • The conversation(s) and email(s) to arrange the engagement
  • Travel (time and costs) to and from the event
  • Preparing the talk and materials
  • Sticking around after the talk to answer questions and talk with people
  • The bureaucracy involved in billing and getting paid (and the bigger the institution, the more of this bureaucracy there is)

In my experience, these tasks can easily occupy three, four, five or more times the time of the talk itself.

As she says, when she is asked to speak for an hour “it is never, ever, ‘just an hour’.”

So what to do?

Let me end by saying again that I love being asked to speak at conferences and other events. I hope to continue to do this work for many years to come, deciding for myself when I am in a position to donate my time.

But large, well-funded institutions that can afford to pay those of us who work freelance should do so as a matter of course rather than labelling us “exceptions.”

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