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Ask Ada

A service of the Tech LadyMafia. Career advice for professionals in tech, science, entrepreneurship, and media. Hit the ask button and we'll answer to the best of our collective wisdom.
Oct 18 '12

"How do I charge for professional consultation when those who need my services cannot afford to pay?"

Alright, let’s start with defining terms here. If you are providing a service where the only market is those who truly can’t afford your rates, we might not be looking at a viable business here. However, let’s assume you’re providing a wonderful service that will be of interest to some who can pay and to many who cannot pay – and that you are passionate about those companies or NGOs that can’t pay as easily.

We have all been here. In fact, this is such a common problem that one approach to the solution has been turned into a handy infographic that you can order as a letterpress print.


Too often, women back down on rates too quickly, undersell themselves or offer to barter right off the bat. The first time you ask a client to pay you what you’re worth you might feel like this: 

Don’t. No one will value your work more than you do. *You* have to set the bar.


Like any industry, working for cheap devalues not only yourself but also your peers out there who are trying to keep rates up so they can make a living. Putting the right price on your work helps your clients appropriately value, prioritize and respect your service. Plus, working for less than you deserve (especially if it isn’t for clients for whom you feel personal passion) can be draining and create resentment. 

At the beginning of each year or each quarter, think through how many pro-bono hours you can provide while still earning the living you require. Then, figure out if this client can work into those pro-bono hours. Be sure to send these lucky clients an official invoice, with a note that reads “payment is cancelled, pro bono” or what have you. (Alternatively, if you can’t resist a reduced rate, make sure that the client is clear on what your full fee rate is and ensure that the  full fee  rate appears in the invoice even if followed by “non-profit project, 50% fee”) Ensure that both you and your client understand that your time is valuable. 

For unpaid work, it is critical to set clear boundaries in writing and stick to them. So for example, you might say, “I only have fifteen hours available for your project, over the next three weeks—let’s size the work I’ll do for you appropriately.” Define a scope and define an outcome – something you’ll be excited to have been a part of or add to your portfolio. Remember, free doesn’t equal forever.

Also, get creative. The first answer to get the clients you want doesn’t have to be: “slash my rates.” For instance, if one non-profit can’t afford the amazing workshops you design and execute, perhaps if 3-4 non-profits get together to bring you in for that workshop, you can earn what you deserve and they’ll derive major benefit and less cost.

It can be hard to break into an organization or an industry so discounting might make sense as part of an overall strategy but don’t go asking for crumbs. Because that is what you’ll often get. 

10 notes