Working for Nothing?

Last week I ran a ‘Meaningful Work, Fulfilling Life’ workshop. It was a small group, which was good for strong Introvert Gerda, who felt able to speak of her dreams: her problems turning them into a living, and her uncertainty about what she could offer and to whom.

She spoke of her absolute commitment to the natural world, and her low carbon life. She was planning to walk two miles home through dark lanes in the rain. She was 61, and although robust, didn’t have long striding legs. I was happy to be able to offer her a lift.

On the way, she tentatively asked about coaching, and how much I charge. I detailed my sliding scale depending on people’s income and resources. Her shoulders dropped, resignation crossing her face. I went on to explain that I also work for less sometimes, if someone has little expendable income. ‘I have a very tight budget’, she told me, shaking her head.

‘Whatever budget you’re on,’ I assured her,’ we can work together. You give whatever you feel you can, and whatever you feel coaching is worth compared with other things you spend money on.’

She laughed. I looked at her. ‘I never dreamed coaching would be within my reach’, she said. ‘I’ll email you.’

That exchange has stayed with me, and has actually made me angry. What kind of world is it where someone like Gerda – someone of deep integrity and desire to make a positive difference – can’t get the support she needs to realise her vision, because the extended family community that would once have supported her has now all but broken down in today’s society, and she can’t afford to pay anyone?

‘But she deserves it,’ I have kept thinking, which led me to question: what do I mean by that? Who ‘deserves’ free coaching, counselling, mentoring, therapy or any sort of support that would once have come from within the community? Well, it’s not that Gerda’s ‘earned it’ by contributing so much to the greater good through her lifestyle (though for me, that makes her case all the more poignant and necessary).

Many of the clients who find me are already seeking to make a positive contribution to the world. But anyone who comes earnestly to 1:1 work is at the very least hoping for positive change in their own life, and one thing I’ve learned is that when people do that, it usually ripples out to those around them, and sometimes much further.

I’ve done long-term work with a young person in debt, and in exchange he sometimes offers me the gift of his practical skills. One of his goals for our work is to get out of debt, and various other goals he sets himself will help contribute to this. He’s worked on personal issues in order to develop his professional dreams, and he finds the discipline of someone keeping him on track useful. He now has a long term plan, and once he’s out of debt our work together will probably be finished. And this I am quite happy about. Maybe he would have never developed that plan had it not been for the ability to access regular support. And he will likely ‘pay it forward’ over many years to come.

I’ve switched from paid work into free work temporarily when someone’s circumstances have meant short term hardship – and then back again when her situation improved. It’s a matter of having the conversation; finding out who needs what – and continuing to have it.

Working in this way is has its own rewards. I meet richly various people: with exciting plans, or with no clue but a passionate desire for something. But working  on flexible principles isn’t always straightforward or comfortable. When I had regular income from a large commercial client, I felt well-off enough to offer no-charge work quite freely. And my gosh, I learned some significant things from that experience.

Beautiful gifts included a huge fossil, a handmade wooden box and a jar of honey. But… I found I had a much higher proportion of no-shows, or last minute requests for changes of time or day, with free clients than I had with paying clients. I realise now that a lot of this was about how I set it up initially: interestingly, I felt that I should adopt a less structured approach with unpaying clients, which was a mistake as it didn’t help anyone.

One client told me she wasn’t able to pay, and I accepted that – until she started describing the holiday in the Caribbean she was planning. This led to an uncomfortable and then powerful dialogue about money, value and relationship which was most insightful for my client (and me!) Another unpaying client brought me a lovely goodie box more than a year after we worked together, a beautifully touching reminder that instant appreciation isn’t necessarily the best indicator of how useful or valued 1:1 work has been.

This ongoing experiment has caused me to reflect on how my work is valued, and what that means to me. It’s important for me that the work is approached with some commitment – otherwise there’s no point in doing it. And in our monetised world  it’s important for me to earn an adequate income.

When I tell new clients my sliding scale, I now have a brief conversation with them about their situation, and invite them to pick the figure that feels right for them.  Those who pay more make it possible for me to work at a lower rate with those who have less. And so indirectly and disparately, the community supports itself in making the positive changes it seeks.

Do people ever take advantage? Possibly; occasionally. But my sense is that mostly people are mostly sincere. I’m happy to be part of a new economy based around trust, circumstance and fluidity, working ultimately for the greater good, rather than the old fixed, exclusive, transactional model working primarily for financial gain. I’ve been on the receiving end of others’ free assistance when I needed it, and likely I will be again.

I haven’t had that email from Gerda yet. Maybe she’s decided to carry on ploughing her solitary furrow; maybe she hasn’t yet walked the two miles into town to use the library’s computer. Either way, I’m grateful to her for reminding me of those who think 1:1 work is ‘beyond their reach’, and for prompting me to write this piece.

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www.gillcoombs.co.uk

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