Toward a volunteer/work-trade/pro bono approach to consulting

I am writing about this while it is still fresh in my mind, but I don't feel quite as articulate as I'd like. Nonetheless it feels valuable to speak to recent experiences while they are "alive", so to speak.

I have offered consulting for some time, and have worked with several very interesting clients in the past few years on that basis. But it turns out the people I most want to work with often can’t afford the market rate for my skillset and interests. These are people whose work I love and respect, who are doing things in the world that I want to support and enable! I have a decently paying full-time job, so it’s really not about the money for me, but I also don’t want to undervalue my time or that of others doing similar work. Do those concerns matter? What, exactly, does it mean to “undervalue” your time? And how do you decide if you’re getting enough “value” in what you do, whether your compensation is monetary or otherwise?

Over the past year I have been experimenting with how to navigate this, working in particular with small business owners who, as I mentioned, often can’t afford full consulting rates for high tech projects. Yesterday marked the culmination and amazingly successful launch of one of those projects, and being a part of it really crystallized that this approach feels right for me. That you can know, definitively, that your time is well-valued and well-spent, even – and perhaps especially if – it is largely not compensated with money. And also that the way in which I choose to value my time is essentially mine to decide, and I can’t accept responsibility for how others might feel about those choices, how they might feel it reflects on the different way in which they have chosen to value their time. This may seem like an obvious thing to some, but in the tech world such an approach is rare, in my experience, and money (or proxies for it) seems to often be one of the largest considerations in deciding how people spend their time.

Had I went with the norm of charging market rate for my services (or even a consistent, discounted rate), these projects and my work with these interesting, inspiring, deserving people simply wouldn’t have happened. The folks I have worked with in this past year wouldn’t have had the support I was able to offer, and I wouldn’t have been able to celebrate with them and enjoy the feeling of helping someone, and maybe even being an integral part of important changes in their life! This, I imagine, is part of what being a good coach feels like, at times (the best of times).

I have no doubts about the value of having spent my time this way. I have built friendships through this process, and found the right path between us for healthy and sustainable compensation as well. Sometimes it’s work-trade, sometimes sharing of something special, and occasionally good, old fashioned cash. I imagine it may look different for each person or group I work with, and that’s a good thing. It keeps it interesting and ensures the right fit for each client’s needs and means. But what matters most is being able to work with people you believe in and who are doing work in the world that you want to support.

Sometimes the investment of time needed can become a challenge without some more tangible compensation, and when some funds are available to do that, it helps balance things out. Stepping back from the project is also an option, though potentially non-ideal, even though it is still satisfying knowing I helped to some degree. Navigating all of this continues to be a challenging but rewarding process, one which I think I’m getting better at (I certainly hope so!). It’s a good problem to have, in any case. I can help others when my time and energy allows, appreciate and consider (and often enjoy) any compensation they can offer (whether material or monetary or otherwise), and step back from it when other things take my attention and focus.

I’ve written more on this sort of thing in a collective, organizational concept over in my digital garden if you’re interested: