A Question of Value

I was asked to present at a conference recently and I willingly agreed. I was quite aware at the time that there would be no direct payment involved for presenting but the conference was relevant to me, I thought I had something worthwhile to add and I figured I would enjoy presenting… so I said yes. Besides, the organiser is a longstanding friend of mine and I am usually happy to help out. I’ve presented for this person at a number of other conferences and on each occasion my services as a presenter have been greatly appreciated, but have also been expected at no cost. Because of the good exposure it offers and because it ultimately looks good on my resume, I have willingly presented without charge and have usually not regretted doing so.

But I’m wondering where to draw the line. I live in Sydney, and this particular conference is in a different state. So it means a flight, a hotel and a day away from work. It means a taxi to the airport. It means eating at restaurants for a few days, and while all of that might sound somewhat exotic and glamorous compared to the usual school-bound world of education, it can get quite expensive. Adding up the flights, the accommodation and associated incidental costs can easily accrue to four or five hundred dollars. In most cases I’ve insisted that the conference organisers at least cover the cost of getting me there and back and putting a roof over my head, and in most cases they have willingly done so.

This particular conference, which I don’t want to name, did not initially make such an offer. In fact, when I raised the question, I was put into a bargaining situation where I had to offer to double the number of sessions I was running in exchange for my travel costs to be covered. And while I think it will be a great conference, the fact that I am presenting both morning and afternoon sessions for both days means that I won’t get a whole lot of time to enjoy the rest of it.

The final straw in stretching my goodwill came today however, when a confirmation email arrived for the conference, and kindly informed me that if I wanted to attend a preconference social event it would only cost me $70. In addition to that, the official conference dinner was also available to me at a mere $90. There is something wrong with this picture… Now, not only am I presenting for no charge, I had to bargain for my basic costs to be covered and have to pay my own way to join the social part of the event. That doesn’t seem right to me.

So I replied to the email with this little note tacked on the end…

This is a little bit awkward, but I feel I need to say it.

Without presenters there would be no conference. As a commercial business that operates for a profit, it amazes me that <company name> has an expectation that presenters will come along and present for free. Obviously, there are people out there willing to do this (including myself) who simply enjoy the opportunity to present to their colleagues and who do it for the love of it. If <company name> had to actually pay the presenters there would probably not be a conference, as it would not be affordable to run or attend. Looking through the presenters list is quite a who’s who of the EdTech community in Australia and you are fortunate to be able to get them to present for you, and especially so when you consider that you are getting their services for virtually no cost.

I was surprised a few months ago that I had to do a deal with <name removed> and offer to present a couple of extra sessions in exchange for <company name> covering the expense of getting me to the conference and putting me up in a hotel, both expenses that it was initially assumed I would be carrying myself. While I enjoy presenting, I simply cannot afford to pay the cost of airfare and accommodation, not to mention having to ask for a day off from my regular employment in order to offer my services for free.

There has to be a limit to what people will tolerate before it feels like they are being taken advantage of. I have no idea how many of the presenters are having costs covered, or indeed if any of them are in fact charging for their services, but if my own experience is anything to go by it would seem to be very few of them. To present for no financial reward is one thing, but to be out-of-pocket for the privilege of doing so is just absurd. These things are not a holiday, they’re hard work. It takes lots of preparation time to do one of these sessions (let alone 4 of them!), as well as time away from loved ones, time away from work and other interests, etc.

Now, in return for their generosity, these presenters are being asked to pony up their own money to attend one of the only real perks of being there, the social events.

I believe there needs to be a rethink about how much you value your presenters. I understand that it would be a significant added expense for <company name> to look after them in the way they ought to be looked after, but again, without presenters there would be no conference. It’s OK not to pay us (sort of!) but to expect us to pay our own way in order to help <company name> run a profitable conference is a bit of an insult.

Just my thoughts, although I’m sure others are thinking the same things.

I raised this question on my Twitter network and it seems that many agree with me. The general feedback was that conference organisers should, as a minimum, cover the expenses of their presenters. In the education sphere there is typically not a lot of money to throw around, and I understand that if presenters had to be paid what they were really worth there would probably not be nearly as many conferences to present at… Catch 22. But what is reasonable?

So what do you think? What is a realistic expectation for commercial conference organisers to offer teacher presenters? Do teachers who present for free (like I have in the past) make a rod for our own back? Do we undervalue ourselves by offering our services at little cost?

Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy presenting and am glad to be able to contribute. I don’t have a problem presenting for free (for now anyway) but I do think that I ought not have to be out of pocket for the privilege of doing so, especially when these events are being run as commercial exercises. To be paying my own expenses to help someone else make money makes me feel like I’m being taken advantage of, and that’s not a good feeling.

Please leave me a comment as I’m really interested to hear what you have to say on this.

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CC BY-SA 4.0 A Question of Value by Chris Betcher is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

15 Replies to “A Question of Value”

  1. Good for you Chris!

    I totally agree with everything you’ve said. I think educators, especially, are willing to work for far less than the value of their job (that goes for your primary work and your presentations in most parts of the world). I think, as you say, we are so happy to share, and enjoy presenting, that we’re willing to overlook the extended costs of presenting for free. But it really shouldn’t be like that. I can’t imagine any speakers at a medical or legal conference flying themselves out to the conference and paying for all of the extras…

    At some point, I think educators need to make sure that they value themselves enough to ask for appropriate compensation. I know I’m guilty of doing too much for free, because I enjoy it (and I know it can’t hurt the resume, either), but if we don’t value ourselves, no one else with either, right?

    I certainly hope you got your social events covered after that e-mail!

  2. Hi Chris
    I think you have put together a well worded letter and I hope the organisers take notice. I have friends who present at other schools, district events etc and I think too often teachers are happy to impart their knowledge to others but obviously many presenters like yourself who do this regularly and all over the country should not be out of pocket in doing so.
    Jane Lowe

  3. I was astounded that at least your travel, accommodation and conference attendance was not totally covered. A terrible situation. I am soon to fly to Whangarei to present at a conference and they sent me the plane tickets in advance and made sure accommodation was taken care of. They asked if I wanted payment and I said no as it was my in my school holidays and I will enjoy the adventure of it. The choice was there.

    It is part of being valued for your contribution. As you say there is a lot of preparation involved when presenting. Stick to your guns with this.

  4. My call out on Google Talk and Skype both say “Computer Says NO” for a really good reason. Too often I agree to do something only to find out what I’ve said yes to wasn’t exactly what I was expecting.

    After being caught out really badly too many time I now request all details before even considering a yes. What people don’t realise is any type of presentation or workshop uses up a lot of your energy not just while you are doing the presentation. There is all the preparation, stress during the sessions and stress once your done.

    I’m getting so much better at saying NO. Still need a bit more work 🙂

  5. A well-worded letter to the organisers Chris! Would love to know the reply (if any).
    You are so right – we do undervalue ourselves and many of us are willing to share our knowledge and expertise with each other because that’s just the way us educators are. Sharing and helping others discover the tools out there gives me so much satisfaction and is most definitely very rewarding.
    Unfortunately this kind of situation that you are describing often prevents me from presenting – or as I like to call it – “giving back” because the personal cost in $$ is way too high when you present for free, pay the cost of your accommodation and the entry into the conference.

  6. Hi Chris

    Over the years I’d hate to think how many thousands of dollars I have forked out to speak at conferences (in my own state and around Australia) gratis on my areas of expertise. If we were in a different profession, I’m sure, we would not be facing these costs…teaching is a giving profession….don’t think my accountant would be doing the same thing for free.
    I think they are rather cheeky (or rude) expecting you to pay to attend the social function….especially offering you no other token of thanks.
    Hope it works out positively for you.

  7. Chris, I don’t have anything new or eloquent to add. You and your commenters are great. I agree that those who request me to present should help me get there, or if it’s nearby, just give me free gate access. In my case it’s a matter of budget, not greed. I just can’t travel without the stipend. And I may also have to take a personal day or two from my yearly allotment with my school district. So I’m not aiming for a profit, just service to other educators and a better resume (as you said) with the occasional benny to cover my costs.

    I’d like to thank you for blogging this issue because as a newbie trainer/presenter, I’m very much needing guidance on this and it’s a question not many are willing to discuss with me.

  8. Thanks to everyone for weighing in on this topic. I’m glad to hear that you don’t think I’m being totally unreasonable.

    As I mentioned, the organisers in this case happen to be friends of mine and they usually try to look after me as well as they can. To be fair, although I’ve often presented for them with no charge for my actual services, they have usually come good with covering my basic travel expenses. This most recent incident was really the first time that they did not offer to cover my travel expenses automatically (and I had to bargain for them by presenting a few more sessions) and certainly the first one where the other expenses such as conference dinners, etc were listed as a chargable extras.

    They did offer to pay my conference registration fees, but considering I’d be presenting for much of the time I’m there that ought to be a given. Like I said, without presenters there would be no conference so I don’t think getting free admittance to an event should be held up as doing you a major favour. Present AND pay to get in? I don’t think so! (I noticed the ACEC conference in Canberra was built on this arrangement… presenters had to pay to attend the conference. I had intended to offer a couple of sessions but changed my mind as soon as I read that… it’s quite an insult really…) I’ll present for free if I think it’s worthwhile, but pay my way as well? Hmmm.

    My post was attempting to think about the bigger picture, not just how it affects me necessarily, and it appears that lots of other educators have found themselves in the same position before. We really do undervalue ourselves.

    Thanks for the feedback.

  9. Hi Chris,
    I absolutely 100% agree with you! We are lucky when conferences don’t charge presenters registration fees! I just got invited to present at FETC next year and as much as I would love to, I cannot afford the airfare and hotel fare to get there from NY. Last year my district paid for it, but I could never ask them to do that again. It seems totally unfair to us teachers, as everyone knows that the workshops and sessions are what make the conferences valuable to attendees. The cost of presenting at a conference that is not local can run upwards of $1,000! Why DO we undervalue ourselves? I hope your letter sparks a ‘revolution’!

  10. New reader here – came across your blog after listening to you on the Ed Tech Crew.

    Without knowing the organizers (your friends) – my first, and strongest impression is that somebody has stumbled upon what they consider to be a money making opportunity.

    When they assume that you’ll travel there on your own dime, when they assume that you’ll pay to “attend” the conference you’re presenting at, when they want to charge you for the social events, when they negotiate HARD with you just to cover your travel expenses – all those things say to me that somebody’s trying to make money off of this.

    But, like I said, I don’t know your friends.

    I would think that if they were doing this – just as a benefit to people (as opposed to trying to make money) they would be more cognizant of the fact that it costs associated with presenting.

    My first inclination, after hearing all of this stuff, would be to say “thanks, but no thanks.”

    I think that somebody has realized that teachers like presenting (like sharing their knowledge), and – as you mentioned – it looks good to have presented at a conference. Who knows, maybe they even get a fancy little certificate that’s “suitable for framing”. I think somebody clued in on this – and decided to try and make some money off of it.

  11. Hi Flint. Thanks and welcome to Betchablog. 🙂

    I actually had a chat to the organisers the other day, just to clarify things and clear the air. I don’t think they were making any of these decisions with any intent to rip people off or profiteer, but they did concede that when you look at things from the perspective of the presenters, it could appear a bit unfair.

    They work on the basis that the people who present at the event would probably have attended the conference anyway, so the reasoning is that their travel expenses would probably be covered by their school as part of the PD budget. They also reasoned that by asking these people if they wanted to present, they were in fact offering them a way to get into the conference without the need to pay the conference fee. And I agree, that if you are in that position – going to the conference anyway and already have your travel expenses covered by your school – then saving the conference fee by presenting a single session is probably a reasonable deal.

    I happened to not be in that position, and would have had to pay my own way as well as present multiple sessions, and they agreed that it was not so fair.

    Anyway, it’s all resolved now, and everyone is happy.

    Thanks for everyone’s feedback on this thread… it’s been interesting.

  12. Chris,

    I think what you just described is commonplace. I had the opportunity to present at a conference at Oxford in the UK but the cost was several thousand bucks. I passed on the opportunity, but a colleague went and the school paid. He was subsequently invited to present at a UN sponsored education summit, also in Europe. He’s getting all sorts of invites now. Who knows what I’ve missed by not going?

    I think you are doing the right thing by letting the organizers know about your needs and your personal situation. If your school cannot pay your way, it cannot hurt anything by letting them know they need to provide some assistance in getting you there.

  13. “If we were in a different profession, I’m sure, we would not be facing these costs”

    Ah, no. Presenters at linux.conf.au are expected to pay their own way but get free registration. The same was also true of the computational biology conference I was just at.

    linux.conf.au probably has the best approach. They have enough sponsorship money to fund about 10 people from overseas and 10 people from Australia. That’s enough to get deserving but starving speakers who aren’t being underwritten by their employer to get to the conference.

    Some ‘conferences’ are commercial affairs — you can spot them by the $1000s of fees for attendees. In that case, the conference organisers pay for everything.

    It also depends on the size of the conference. For example, about one-third of the 50-odd attendees at Protocols for Fast, Long Distance Networks are speakers too. So underwriting the speakers would make attendance uneconomic for non-speaking attendees.

  14. Chris this is interesting isn’t it? We face the same situation here in North America. I regularly get invited out to speak, but often need to turn things down as I cannot afford to go! On the other hand, many people are not allowed to accept payment (even when offered) as their school districts will not allow them to. It seems that either you are in full time doing the work as a paid professional (a la David Warlick, Will Richardson, etc) or out because there are too many hoops to jump through. This is a shame to me as it seems that those people who are actually active in classrooms are often left on the outside, struggling to find a balance.

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