Long-time readers of this blog know my frustration over newly-minted private, independent advocates volunteering their time as a way to prepare to be professional advocates.
Newbie advocates cite two major reasons for doing their advocacy work for free:
- They are afraid / reluctant / don’t have enough confidence to talk about money and ask for payment.
- They feel sorry for the prospective client, and figure it won’t take too much time to help them.
- … both of the above.
The problem is, doing volunteer advocacy as a way to start an independent practice is the very best way to put yourself out of business. Growing a business is all about making sure your income is more than your outgo. You can start your business – no problem! But if you can’t ask for money, and you don’t learn how to, then it won’t be long before you lose your business.
(Can you imagine a lawyer not expecting to be paid? Or your tax guy? Or even your hairdresser?)
The consequences are dire for both you and others: if you only ever do the work for free, then not only have you lost all that time, effort, and money you invested in getting your practice started, but you also fail all those (hundreds? thousands of?) people you might have helped in the future if you had been successful.
One of my favorite sayings is:
Insanity is repeating the same behavior and expecting different results.
So, I’ve been formulating a way to help newbies learn to ask for money – baby steps. A way to practice; to work toward not being afraid to ask.
Baby Steps: Asking for Money
- Realize you are worth it! You are embarking on a career that will improve and extend the quality and quantity of someone’s life. That is worth everything, and since you’re the one delivering it – YOU are worth it! If it helps, stand in front of your mirror, and repeat “I am worth it!” to yourself over and over again.
- Make sure you have your liability or E&O insurance in place. No matter how much or how little someone will pay you, do NOT perform advocacy work without that insurance. It’s like walking the tight wire over Niagara Falls without a safety net. Having it will also give you confidence knowing that even if you fail, you’re covered.
- When you come upon that person you want to volunteer to help (even as you hear that little voice screaming in your head to ask them for money!) – then ask for money. But for this baby step, you’re going to do it a little differently:
- You’re going to tell them what you would have charged to do the work you are about to do. (A LOT of money, even if you need to inflate the amount for this exercise.) “Mr. Johanson, I can help you with this. Ordinarily I would charge around $1200.”
- Then you’re going to tell them that because you know money is tight for them, but you can see how desperately they need your help, you will charge them only $25.* You can explain that you must receive payment so your insurance will cover your work. “But, Mr. Johanson, you’ve explained that money is tight for you. My insurance requires I charge you for the service. So to help you out, I’m only going to charge you $25 to get this entire situation squared away.”
- They’ll agree – because they can see what a gift you are giving them. Next, get a signature on your contract before you begin work. The contract sets up expectations for your working relationship – and once someone has signed, and paid, they are confirming and committing to those expectations just as you are. “So if $25 meets with your approval, I’m going to send over a copy of my contract. Once we have your signature and payment we can get started.”
- Invoice them (even through Paypal). Be sure to tell them you can’t begin work until you have received payment. Then stick to it!
- If later the work expands in scope, then just like you would with any contract, take the time to update your contract to reflect the changes. This may just be an exercise because the amount of money won’t necessarily change, but it’s good practice. A word of advice – try not to let the scope expand into more volunteering time because you still have a practice to build.
*Here’s how you’re going to build up to a normal money and collection conversation:
- Practice the conversations over and over in front of a mirror, then with someone else you trust to practice with you.
- For the first “volunteer case,” ask only for $25. This amount, or even a little more, is important because even if money is very tight, they need to understand that they have an investment in it. It takes on more importance and commands respect.
- When you do this the second time, you’re going to ask for $100.
- By the third time, you’ll have the confidence you need, so jump right into the money conversation that would normally take place – no extreme discounts.
- At that point – NO MORE VOLUNTEERING – until you have built a healthy practice and know you’ll have plenty of paying clients to sustain it, even if you volunteer every once in awhile. (Don’t rush this – it may be 5 years before your practice is this healthy.)
If, after you have explained the enormous discount, the person balks, then you need to walk away. Tell them you are sorry, but you cannot help them. Take it from hundreds of advocates before you, If they are going to balk at small sums of money, then they are going to cause you WAY more headaches than you want or can learn from. The relationship will be nothing but a frustrating time suck because they will have no respect for you or your abilities. Do not choose that road to failure.
Are you one of the “afraid to ask for money” newbies to whom I’m referring? Then give this a try and see if it puts you into a different frame of mind, asking for money. Report back if you will! We can use all the feedback and new suggestions we can get.
Patients need us. We owe it to them to build a healthy practice, and that starts with an expectation of being paid.
- When Passion and Reality Collide
- The One Thing That Will Cause Your Private Advocacy Practice to Fail
- 8 Ways Your Advocacy Practice May Be Like The Giving Tree