Why I Charge So Much, and So Little, to Speak
Amy Julia Becker is a remarkable young writer whose book A Good and Perfect Gift, a memoir about discovering that her first child had Down Syndrome, was published in 2011. She sent me an email asking how I handle speaking requests, and especially the question of how to handle the occasions when invitations come without any apparent plans to compensate her for her time. With her permission, here’s a slightly expanded version of what I wrote in response.
I have a pretty standard reply when I receive speaking requests that require travel outside the Philadelphia area. It starts this way: “My speaking fee is $2,500/day or partial day, plus travel expenses, which I work hard to keep to a minimum.” If I have reason to expect that they will be taken aback by that number, I add: “I realize this may be out of the reach of some academic or nonprofit budgets.” (Note that I don’t offer to reduce the amount!) I sometimes also emphasize: “I’m all yours during the time I’m with you—please feel free to pack my schedule! I’m happy to wash dishes if that would be helpful.” (That’s true! I actually like washing dishes. Not many groups take me up on the dishwashing, but a lot sure do take advantage of the packed schedule, and I love it.) And I often add: “My family and I have decided to focus my volunteer speaking time on the Philadelphia area, where I never charge at all. However, this means that when I do travel, I have to charge my full fee.”
We have decided we are called to “tithe” our time as well as our money, and we want to tithe our time in the place where God has placed us
Now, there are a few exceptions worth noting. I often make different arrangements when my travel is connected with my day job at Christianity Today—this approach applies to the roughly half of my time that I spend on my own speaking and writing. Another exception is that in the months following the publication of a new book (which will happen, God willing and me writing, late next year) I generally do several events, ones that my publisher’s marketing team feels are especially significant, for little or no compensation except travel. It’s a recognition of all the investment they are making in the book. I only do this in consultation with the publisher, though.
Also, there are a handful of people who are most significant in my own life and growth, with whom I want to spend as much time as possible in order to sustain and deepen the relationship. If discounting my fee or waiving it altogether means we get to do something together, then I’ll do so.
This approach is hard won over several decades of experimenting and learning from my mistakes—in particular, things I found myself desperately wishing I had not agreed to do. To be honest, in my experience there are few times where traveling any great distance to speak without payment is actually a good idea. As for the specific amount I charge, it’s based on essentially one criterion: an amount just high enough that even if my hosts were to do a terrible job preparing for my visit (alas, that does happen from time to time), I could happily cash the check and know that if nothing else was accomplished, the income had helped to set me free to do other things at other times without worrying about money. For various reasons the amount has gone up over the past few years, but interestingly, the higher I’ve set that number, the more lasting fruit my work has seemed to bear.
That said, I think the least important thing in my whole approach is the dollar amount I charge—much more important are the principles behind it. Most important is the commitment Catherine and I have made that in Philadelphia, we will discourage churches and ministries from paying me altogether. We have decided we are called to “tithe” our time as well as our money, and we want to tithe our time in the place where God has placed us and where there are the greatest chances of building and nurturing ongoing relationships. So with my fellow Philadelphians I set all these considerations aside and try just to serve generously and wholeheartedly, expecting nothing in return—and that, too, interestingly, has borne a lot of fruit in the form of joyful friendships and partnerships of a sort I could only dream of when we moved here eight years ago.