It’s a very controversial topic that is generating a number of heated discussions in LinkedIn Groups. Some common threads are emerging, but it is clear that the industry is divided on this issue.
I have seen some non-profit organizations book expensive hotels or other venues and then expect professionals to give their services by speaking for free. This is hardly reasonable.
When professionals who are full-time employees speak for free, it is usually as an extension of their work responsibilities. They have already been compensated and participation on panels and speaking at events is a triple win: The employee, the employer and the conference organizers benefit.
Issues arise when self-employed professionals who earn their livelihood by sharing their expertise are expected to speak for free.
Today, let’s examine several scenarios (you’re invited to weigh in).
Speaking to Give Back to the Community
There are a number of instances in which engaging speakers for free makes sense and few would object to it. The following scenarios involve a team effort in which a number of professionals are donating their services for the success of the event.
Industry Associations Events
Professional association membership requires teamwork. Sometimes the staff is small. Without professionals being willing to participate and give back to the industry, some associations couldn’t operate.
There are many ways in which association members give their time, expertise and services on a voluntary basis, such as:
- Serving on national or local boards
- Joining committees to plan conferences, workshops and special events
- Contributing articles to association publications
- Speaking at association events
- Facilitating breakout sessions at conferences
Without these volunteer efforts, membership, conference and event fees would skyrocket.
It is important to remember that when members donate their speaking services, it is perfectly reasonable that they should briefly describe their offerings from the platform. It is also appropriate that speakers be permitted to include a short blurb about their area of expertise and links to their website, blog and social media accounts in handouts, on the event app, etc.
Some charity events are organized by volunteer committees that donate their time to raise funds for a worthwhile cause. Waiving their fee is one way in which speakers can give back to the community as part of these initiatives.
Sometimes, non-profit organizations ask professionals to speak for free or at a significantly reduced rate. If there is a need to do this, then it is important to ensure that there is no overspending in other areas of the budget. For example, I have seen some non-profit organizations book expensive hotels or other venues and then expect professionals to give their services by speaking for free. This is hardly reasonable. It is also unreasonable to ask professionals to “jump through hoops” for the privilege of speaking for free.
Events by Emerging Event Planners
It can be challenging to break into the meeting and event industry. Teaming up and volunteering to plan networking events is an excellent strategy that some emerging event planners are using to gain some experience and demonstrate their skills. These initiatives should be encouraged. Speakers, facilitators and experienced planners can give newcomers a leg up by speaking or facilitating sessions at these events.
Speaking as a Business Development Strategy
There are other scenarios under which event planners are more divided.
For some profit-making events, the standard practice is to pay marquee speakers for keynotes and ask other professionals to facilitate breakout sessions without compensation. The rationale that is often provided for this approach is that speaking or facilitating a breakout session for free will “raise one’s profile” and generate business leads.
The main challenge with this approach is that participants who pay to attend events expect value, not a series of sales pitches. Rarely do they attend events as “talent scouts” (That is their role when they attend speaker showcases.) As a result, individuals who speak for free are often disappointed in the limited value of this approach for lead generation.
Independent trainers, speakers and facilitators have spent many years honing their craft, developing their expertise and building their knowledge base. Yet, some event planners who are well compensated for their own services fail to perceive the disconnect when they expect self-employed professionals to work for free.
There are other alternatives.
- Go paperless to save money.
- Find a more affordable venue.
- Obtain sponsors to underwrite speaker fees.
- Work with the catering manager to design creative menus that stretch the budget.
- Engage fewer speakers but give them more time to cover content in greater depth.
Speaking of sponsors, one strategy some event organizers use to stretch their budgets and generate event revenue is the use of panels that consist of sponsors. As long as they deliver solid content and this approach is used sparingly, participants are unlikely to object. Avoid using sponsor panels to deliver the majority of content or some participants may feel short-changed.
Another related strategy is approaching speakers and asking them to pay for the privilege of speaking at an event. This is to be avoided at all costs. Participants expect and deserve content that delivers value. Veiled sales pitches by speakers seeking to re-coup their investment just won’t cut it and meet the (understandingly) high expectations of conference and event participants.
Sometimes it makes sense to engage speakers for free but consider this: There are few industries in which it is standard practice to ask self-employed professionals to work without compensation. For example, one would never expect an architect or landscaping professional to work for free in the hopes that neighbors would be impressed by the quality of their work and engage their services. So, why is this expectation standard practice in the meeting and event industry? Do you feel that it is a reasonable expectation?
Whether you are a speaker or an event planner, please share your perspective in Comments.
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