Filthy Lucre

It’s a pretty mad world when a project’s sustainability is measured by its ability to bring in a sufficient amount of money. Forget the changes it makes, the experience, wisdom, energy of the people involved. But there you have it folks. That’s capitalism. And sadly here at Rhizome we’re not exempt.

Generally folk in our movement are not great at talking about money. Maybe it’s a UK cultural thing? Maybe it’s a class thing? When I’m negotiating a fee with a client I’m never sure who’s most embarrassed – me or them! That needs to change.

So for a while now I’ve been thinking of giving you a peek behind the scenes at how the whole money thing works here at Rhizome – as an attempt to demystify the whole money thing. But how to pitch it? No-one wants to hear us whine about being cash strapped, and I don’t want to write that.

When we’re asked to do a piece of work we usually offer a sliding scale. But we don’t always offer much information to allow an organsation to know where to place itself on the scale. From time to time we get asked “what criteria should we use?”. Great question. I hope this post helps.

Rhizome’s an odd creature. We’re a co-op, but a type of co-op called a co-operative consortium. In essence that means we’re a collective of freelance facilitators, trainers and mediators. We’re all self-employed but band together under the Rhizome banner for mutual support, and to offer you a coherent and yet diverse resource.

The nature of self-employment means that much, often the majority, of our working week is unpaid. All that admin, promotion, networking, ongoing learning (so that we can be better at the work we offer you) and much more is done on our time and at our expense. Then, of course, at present the majority of Rhizome’s work is with unfunded organisations or groups – so we do that for free or donations. So when we do get paid, we need to get paid a reasonable rate. We might only be getting paid for a handful of days in the month.

I have a feeling that on occasion when I name a rate for a potential client there’s a sharp intake of breath and a quick mental calculation – “£350 a day? that’s £1750 a week which is over £90 grand a year“. Hmmmmm, not by a long chalk. And that’s OK because Rhizome folk don’t aspire to that kind of money.

Recently I spoke with a potential client, a small charity in Bristol. We chatted about fees and I explained that we were OK with something significantly lower than a commercial rate, but aspired to a sustainable rate. The client commented that she’d spoken to a neighbour that facilitated for government at £175 an hour. It puts our £350 a day example into context.

Let’s look at an example. Let’s take the £350 figure, because it seems pretty common:

Sadly it’s often not £350 a day, but £350 for a piece of work (a 1 day training, for example). But that’s not a day’s work. We prepare, often in detail and at length. 1 day spent with a client can easily be 2 1/2 to 3 days of work, if not more. Then there’s time spent travelling. Let’s call it £350 for 3 days work. £117 a day. That’s about the national average wage, right? Not for the self-employed. Firstly Rhizome takes a 20% cut to support the ongoing development of the organisation, and pay for inevitable collective expenses. And in the long term to build up a kitty to pay for co-ordination time. So £93.60 a day.

Unlike employees we cover our own national insurance, pay for our own IT equipment and support, insurance, our own office costs, materials for the work we’ve done for you and more. We don’t have HR people to fill in our forms, IT departments to help us avoid frustrating hours trying to get the printer to work. We either do it ourselves or we pay for someone else to do it out of our own pockets. In reality £93 is much closer to the minimum wage than you’d imagine.

OK, I’m in danger of slipping into that whine I mentioned. Apologies. What I’m driving at is that that’s not a sustainable income for Rhizome members and not enough to pay our co-ordinators. Fortunately we’re attracted to Rhizome for non-monetary reasons too – the collective space in which to learn and share and grow; the opportunity to work with great organisations and groups; to make the “catalytic interventions” we talk about in our internal meetings; and to feel like they’re making a difference.

So what can we do? And what can you do to help?

One issue we hit time and again is the limitations to the budgets of the folk we work with. Even in organisations with multi-million turnovers, the training or event budget for activists and the capacity builders that support them is tiny. When we ask for our £350 fee we could be wiping out the entire budget for an event. So there’s some long-term education to be done. How do we get those who hold the purse strings in organisations to appreciate that they need to budget more, to prioritise differently, if they want folk like us to be a sustainable resource?

Here are other ways to show your appreciation for the work we do if you can’t pay us that sustainable rate –

  • write us a blog post sharing the experience of working with us (good and bad).
  • use other social media as well as good old-fashioned word of mouth
  • mention our contribution to your work to your funders – more and more grant funders are refusing unsolicited applications, and we need to get their attention in other ways
  • if you know of sources of funding for the work we do, tell us about them – don’t assume that we already know. We’re very happy to work with you on joint funding applications too…
  • put realistic figures in your funding bids – don’t think what could we get Rhizome to do it for. Think what are they worth.
  • talk to your managers – show them this post, put them in touch so that they can appreciate the need to increase your budget
  • use us more – we’re a talented bunch – training, facilitation, mediation, capacity building, consultancy, coaching and mentoring, research, writing and so much more. As a collective, we have well over a century of experience of doing this stuff, and of doing it well.
  • pay us more when you have it. We’ve used an example of £350 for a piece of work. That really needs to be £350 a day for our long-term sustainability. So for pieces of work where you do have good funding pay us at least that.
  • put up with us getting tougher on you. Being hard-nosed business types doesn’t necessarily come easy to us, but it’s likely to be necessary
  • acknowledge the reality, don’t be embarrassed. We think you do a great job. Many of you think we do a great job too. That’s appreciated, but we can’t guarantee to be there to keep doing that job until we reach a sustainable equilibrium. And we’re some way from that.

In fact recently a few of us discussed whether our fee needed to include a commitment to doing some of the things from the list above – ie £350 + travel + a blog post (or contribution to one)

We’re worth every penny and a good few more besides!