This is not a post which gives me any pleasure to write, but it is an inconvenient fact of life that none of us are able to exist and live for free. That includes collaborators on project work. Over the years, I have been involved in dozens of collaborations with esteemed colleagues around the world, including New Zealand, Australia, the United Kingdom, United States, Canada, Cambodia, Indonesia and Vanuatu to name a few – every single one of these projects does/has done excellent work (I wouldn’t lend myself to it if I didn’t agree with it). A number of these projects have compensated me for my time and/or expenses associated with the project, however many have not.
As the number of requests for my involvement in projects grows, the expectation that I work for free is becoming difficult to sustain. Make no mistake, I am grateful for the opportunities, and appreciate you thinking of me, but having a seat at the table shouldn’t disadvantage anyone financially. There are only so many hours in a week, and taking on unpaid project work reduces my ability to take on paid work, or alternatively to work long into the night and weekend.
I am often invited as an expert by experience, although I am also an expert by training. This is my work, it is what I do for a living, and all I ask is to be treated equitably and fairly. I am a fully qualified and registered Speech Language Therapist, and have an established clinical and academic career – I started volunteering in this field in 2006, and have been working in it since 2012. I bring all of this experience and enthusiasm to the table and to your project when you invite me to be part of it. So the question I’ll pose is, how much is that worth to your project?
Over the last few years, I’ve experienced a dramatic uptick in the number of projects I’ve been involved in – and I’ve genuinely enjoyed working on these projects and love to lend my expertise to them. However, I’ve also become increasingly aware of the sustainability issue that is developing and the limitations in my ability to take on paid work in order to keep the required capacity set aside to deliver for these projects. Ultimately, yes, it is my responsibility to say no to projects that offer unreasonable terms, and yes, it is very difficult for me to do this when I strongly agree with the work that the project is undertaking. However, there is a bigger responsibility here to be reasonable in what we are asking and offering collaborators. I’m not alone in having experienced this (in fact, for a great piece about why this problematic, read this excellent post from Carly Findlay), and I know that a number of my colleagues working in the larger disability support and research spaces have developed strong policies and consultancy rates for all such work. Consultancy rates are an option that I keep on the table, although I don’t have any current plans to implement fixed rates. Instead, I would rather we don’t need to have this awkward conversation at all. With that in mind, please consider the following questions before reaching out, to ensure you are treating your collaborators equitably.
In which capacity are you approaching me (really though)?
This may take a bit of thinking through since my capacity can be both personal and professional. It can be tricky even for me to draw lines between my work and my role as an individual with cleft.
If you are approaching me as a patient representative, would you feel confident in approaching anyone else from the community to complete the same task? If the answer to that is yes, that’s great – think of me as a research participant and remunerate me in the same way you would your other research participants (usually at least covering peoples’ expenses).
However, if the answer is no, (i.e. you would not be able to ask any randomly selected community representative), and it’s my other experience that you are also wanting to tap into, then perhaps think of me as an expert/advisor that you would likely pay consultancy fees to.
How much are you remunerating other people on the project doing a similar role?
If you’re already paying other people for consultancy services (even if they are consulting on a different aspect of your project), to be equitable, you should pay all of your other collaborators on equitable terms too. Similarly, be mindful that many of your other collaborators may be able to collaborate on your project in the course of their normal employment. If your project does fit within the scope of their existing employment, and you’re not having to pay them as a result, that’s fine as ultimately, they’re paid for their contribution via their usual employer. However, if a collaborator wouldn’t be able to complete the work in the course of their normal employment, have a think about how you can make it fair and equitable for them.
How much of my time are you asking for, and on what basis?
Does your expectation of a collaborator reflect something they would expect from an organisation they are volunteering for, or something which they have been employed to do? If a collaborator’s services on your project are needed within tight deadlines (i.e. less than 4 weeks), or if you’re wanting to consult multiple times, or to meet and then have them go away and do a piece of work and report back to you, this starts to look more like employment or professional consultancy services.
Can you do as good a job on this project without me (or someone like me)?
If the answer is no, then you should be paying your collaborators (the one exception to this would be if no-one on this project is paid – see ‘What is your budget?’ below) and covering the expenses of your research participants. If the answer is yes, please reflect on why you’re asking for my involvement – no-one wants to feel their role is tokenistic or for the purpose of ticking boxes.
Are you being paid for your time on the project?
If the answer is yes, then it already feels unfair if you’re not treating your collaborators equally by remunerating them for their time.
If the answer is no (and you’re not being indirectly paid for this work through the course of your normal employment), then this is something that I may be interested in volunteering some of my unpaid capacity for (assuming I have capacity, and that our expectations and values align) – please get in touch.
What is your budget?
Is there money in your budget that you could use to pay collaborators? If not, can you put consultancy fees into your project budget? If you need to consult with a lawyer, accountant or other professional you (and your funder) would expect to pay for their services, and a collaborator’s services should be considered and planned for similarly.
I want to create sustainability – I still value voluntary work! Sustainability means that I am using my unpaid capacity primarily for projects that genuinely wouldn’t be able to do the work if they needed to pay collaborators (for example, student projects, pilot projects, low resource NGOs, healthcare services in low income countries etc.). In contrast, if your project budget is covering salaries, or your institution has significant funding behind them, please try to factor in a budget for consultancy to help preserve capacity for lesser resourced projects.