Friday, August 16, 2013

Would you work for free?

At some level, it's extremely flattering to be asked to speak at many events, conferences, congresses and provide expert input to large corporations for their stakeholder engagement efforts. It's really great to be considered an expert that people want to hear. Developing detailed expertise in specialist fields such as Sustainability Reporting, CSR for HR, the new G4 GRI Guidelines, Sustainability Strategy, SME Reporting, Stakeholder Engagement and CSR and Social Media, things which I am generally known for, takes time, money and consistent effort. But feeling flattered does not pay the bills. People don't become experts by chance. They work at it. Fortunately for me, the things I work at becoming expert in are the things I am most passionate about in my life, but nonetheless, I spend hours upon hours building my own knowledge in many different ways, including those which cost money such as attending expensive conferences or training programs. I am sure other consultants do the same. Building expertise is a major investment. It's great when people recognize that you are an expert.
I am often approached (several times a week) by many different companies, organizations, groups or individuals to use my expertise to help them. Some want my input to their stakeholder engagement process, some want me to go lecture at a meeting or conference, some want me to review their sustainability reports, or blog about them, some want me to provide advice for a paper or thesis they are writing, some want me to run a training session .. etc... the number and range of requests are endless. When it's students of CSR or Sustainability, I always try to help as much as I can. If it's an academic institution or an NGO, I do my best to help. It's when for-profit companies or corporations ask me to use my time and expertise to help them, expecting I will do so for free, because it gives me exposure or provides me with a way to contribute to the greater good, I draw the line.
A recent post by Toby Webb, of Ethical Corporation, resonated with me. He was coming from a different angle. In a post entitled "How not to engage stakeholders by email" , he makes the point that the new way of engaging stakeholders by sending bulk emails to a range of people and asking for input is not effective. He calls it the tick-box way of stakeholder engagement. While there is some place for online surveys in any company's arsenal of communications tools and channels, there is something that rings true about this. However, my point here is not so much about the effectiveness of this approach, but about the expectation that individuals will be prepared to invest time, effort and expertise with no compensation. 
A couple of cases in point (out of several) from this last week.
First: Large global company conducting a stakeholder engagement exercise. I didn't respond to the first request (time, time, time) and I got second request by email which went like this:

Early last week you have received below email from xxxxxx, Head of Corporate Responsibility (CR) at  xxxxxx, inviting you to take part in the company’s CR materiality analysis. As you are a critical stakeholder, xxxxxxx would like to seek your opinion through an online survey (see link below) followed by a short phone discussion (approx. 1 hour, to be scheduled once survey is filled in).

The request is to complete the survey (I did, it took about 10 minutes) AND then spend one hour on the phone.

Second: Commercial training company running a summit which costs over $2000 per delegate for three days. I was invited to be a guest speaker on one of the panels. I asked for travel reimbursement and of course a fee for speaking. This was the response.

"We wont be able to cover any of the associated expenses, since you do represent the service providers sector. We have identified you very relevant to the topic, and are happy to offer you participation on a complimentary basis, hoping the event would offer you the value in return."

Would you work for free? I raised this question in a Facebook Group for CSR people in Israel, and the unequivocal advice was NO... as a professional expert, you should ask a fee for your professional input and services, even if the overall purpose is to help save the planet. One member of the group, Rei Dishon, pointed me to a fabulous decision tree flowchart which says it quite well (you have to click to enlarge and read it).

Basically, I have learned the hard way that participation free at events with the promise of "exposure" and "value" almost never brings either. I also learned that if big corporations want the expertise I work so hard to develop, they should pay for it. I give a lot of expertise away free... via my blogs, and to NGOs and academic institutions and to many many students who ask me for advice and help. Corporations should expect to pay. It's the ethical way.

In this new age of stakeholder engagement, and possibly with greater focus on process in the development of materiality analysis with the new G4 guidelines, and the ease of pushing out online surveys and accessibility of us all through email, we can possibly expect that more and more corporations will be turning to us all, "critical" stakeholders, to provide input. This is progress, Toby's effectiveness argument notwithstanding. However, such input has value. And in seeking it, companies should understand the value that stakeholders want in return. It's not enough to promise to be a better or more sustainable company. Different stakeholders will want different things. Some may not want financial remuneration. Some may. But stakeholder engagement has a price and may start to be one of the new currencies of our complex evolving world of sustainability. Companies will need to start factoring in the costs of more extensive interaction. They will also need to know that their online requests for input competes with several other similar requests, and at some point, becomes a turn-off for the very stakeholders they address as "critical". Differentiation, targeted selection of which stakeholders to approach, and how, and consideration of stakeholder needs, in this area too, will become skills companies will need to develop. 

Here's another example from this week.

xxxx is working to better communicate about our corporate citizenship programs. We value your feedback so we can best describe xxxxx's commitment to responsible operations as well as investments and involvement in our communities. Thank you for sharing your perspective by clicking on this link and answering the survey's seven questions (which we estimate will take only 2-3 minutes of your time). Many thanks and kind regards
I found this approach reasonable. Short survey. Nicely worded request. But it's a global company whose products I do not use (to my knowledge) and with whom I have never had any interaction. How did I get on their list? Nonetheless, I'm inclined to do it. For nothing in return. I hope they use the input. But, if I get ten of these in the same week, I won't respond to all of them.
Anyone who offers to compensate me with ice cream, of course, has a great chance of getting a positive response :)

elaine cohen, CSR consultant, winning (CRRA'12) Sustainability Reporter, HR Professional, Ice Cream Addict. Author of Understanding G4: A concise guide to next generation sustainability reporting AND Sustainability Reporting for SMEs: Competitive Advantage Through Transparency AND CSR for HR: A necessary partnership for advancing responsible business practices Contact me via   or via my business website   (Beyond Business Ltd, an inspired CSR consulting and Sustainability Reporting firm)


Unknown said...

Dear Elaine,

It is going beyond working for free - how about being asked to "pay to play"?!

I recently turned down a request to pay a fee to speak at a conference.

My recent incident occurred after a topic and slot had been discussed and agreed when it transpired that I was expected to pay a fee (through paying registration) – I felt this was underhand.

The issue appears to be on the rise in our sector.

As your piece notes, it is one thing to be asked to put in time, inspiration and expenses towards someone else's event if you feel it is on balance worthwhile.
Pay-to-play is quite another. It seems iniquitous to be asked to pay to speak if the event is made worthwhile because of the range of expertise and insight it gives access to.
It seems it is becoming less valuable to have original, insight and experience and more worthy to be a curator of input. In this scenario it is the conference organisers rather than the content experts who are the true value creators...

An example of the medium dominating the message if ever I saw one!

Best regards,

elaine said...

Hi Joss, absolutely. Expertise is value, and it should be valued. I wouldn't pay to speak at a conference, just as I wouldnt pay an entrance fee to a supermarket.... elaine

Unknown said...

Dear Elaine,

Definitely - like being asked to pay to act in a play...

I thought you might like the following -

A (WARNING) at times rude though fantastically creative response to being asked to do someone's else’s business a favour:

Best regards,


elaine said...

So funny.... made me laugh! (Though it does remind me when I was once asked to prepare an entire business strategy for a successful company for free, because of the "exposure" if would get saying that I had prepared a strategy for that successful company!)

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