I lick my lips and my eyes flick to the ceiling before I answer: ‘£450 a day.’ I’ve been dreading this moment, of telling ‘a client’ that my daily rate is likely more than twice their weekly income. And here is ‘the client’, a group of new co-operators in a Bradford Community Centre that’s seen better days. I backtrack almost immediately – instead we agree a total figure for helping them to reach certain goals.
This daily rate is justifiable, indeed within my consortium of advisors we’ve agreed it as our standard rate. Charging less means undermining fellow co-op advisors, which would be disloyal and cause bad feeling. But I feel embarrassed and weird. Any radical (or even friendship) credentials fly out the window and the amount becomes a marker, changing the relationship between us from friends and comrades, fellow co-operators, to client and consultant. Duh, well, what did I expect? That’s the situation we’re in!
Many of us face this strange situation as freelancers, particularly working in an area that overlaps with our activism or our efforts to live differently – whether it’s design, health and healing, alternative energy. It feels rude to charge for doing something that you previously would have done for free, or indeed still do.
It feels really wrong to charge totally skint people anything at all, let alone standard rates. But this feeling is even more acute in the world of training and consultancy – how do you justify making a living out of non-productive work?
How do you work out what to charge and how do you avoid the slippery slope of liberal excuses? There are many of them: ‘I need smart clothes to project the right image’; ‘I need a car to get to the appointments’; ‘I need a smartphone or tablet so I can respond to clients quickly and keep abreast of developments in my field’. Uh huh.
Wait a minute, those are the easy-to-avoid ones.
These are the ones I find myself falling for: ‘I must go to that conference and develop relationships with people who can help me’; ‘That seminar in Birmingham is important to improve my knowledge’; ‘I need that qualification to give me some credibility’; ‘It’s reasonable to include time spent on LinkedIn discussions in my overheads’.
Really? Will it benefit my client co-ops that much? Or do I just want to feel important and clever and enjoy hanging out with other people I think are important and clever?
Or, more fundamentally, how do I manage the change in role – suddenly I’ve gone from being part of something, or helping out mates, to being an outside expert.
I have substantial influence over projects with which I’m not really connected; my opinion might be interpreted as ‘the truth’ when it’s just an opinion; just my presence in a project might mean the group doesn’t seek peer support or doesn’t do its own research and learning. And clearly, the rate I charge is in direct proportion to this dynamic.
Capitalism has created consultants and experts where previously there were elders, where relationships were mutually beneficial and multi-faceted.
I’m in a really lucky position ethically (for a fundamental collectivist and communitarian living a low-consumption lifestyle) – Footprint (my co-op) will carry on paying me the same weekly wage, regardless of whether I’m printing or advising. But then it has also paid for my study time, professional indemnity insurance, conference attendance, etc, so I need to earn back that investment.
In theory I could choose to collectivise my angst with radical co-op colleagues and make a joint decision on what we charge. But I’m reasonably sure they can’t be bothered with the angst, so I need to sort this out for myself.
For all the stress and the weirdness of this situation, I’m happy to be the sort of person that even has ethical issues about this.
I’m pleased that I live and work with people who have and share opinions about my choices, to explore with me what my choices mean for collective endeavour – and who want me to reciprocate. Only by engaging my friends and comrades in my continual tussle to reconcile social pressures, financial needs and idealism, do I stand any hope of identifying myself in terms of ‘we’, not just ‘I’.