It’s odd I even have to say this but there is a weird trend I’ve noticed that – if you ask me – needs to be nipped in the bud.
I am speaking entirely about sole proprietorships and small business – not corporate or non-profit entities, as I write this. So bear that in mind.
A couple years ago (and I’m going to omit identifying details) I was following a queer woman of color, a professional in a valuable domestic trade. She decided to run a skills workshop for services in her field of expertise. These workshops were four hours of her high caliber skillset, resources, and expertise, hosted in a physical space with provided tools and equipment – for less than a hundred dollars. I don’t live in her geographical locale and I didn’t have interest in that particular type of workshop, but I instantly recognized the value she offered. For reference, her expertise could save students thousands of dollars, and she offered a flexible payment plan even for that low-cost offering.
I knew how much effort and work it was taking her to put this together. Running a course – even a small one – is a feat. You not only have to think of the curriculum and scope for such an endeavor – you have to put together materials, email and social media posts, a scheduler or teaching platform, you have to figure out how to take payment, and you have to answer a lot of FAQs and deal with the admin of people-handling (which can be a pain)! Hardest of all you have to be reaching enough of the right people, so the workshop gets enough attendees to satisfy all parties! (Reaching enough of the right people is heartbreakingly difficult at times!)
And that’s all to be done before the actual date of the workshop!
Besides the workshop itself, you have follow up.
It’s a lot.
Just by glancing at her offering I was so impressed with her generosity, and even more than that her organizational skillset. Imagine my surprise when shortly after she published this offer, several of her commenters started attacking her for charging money – period. Her critics said, in effect, that the LGBTQ population as a whole is already at such a tremendous economic and social disadvantage (this is true!) that it was unethical to charge a member of that group any money whatsoever for a workshop (that is not true)!
It hurt to read this because I saw the labor of love this woman put in, and I’ll also bet you cash money that these particular critics have never put a dime on her counter or even shared her work on their own socials. So in other words, instead of one word of encouragement for her they were immediately clamoring for their own unmet needs without thanks or thought to what she’d put in – or what she was trying to do.
So let me be clear:
This very skilled professional does not in fact owe a single individual or population any specific discount, services, or pro bono work – period. She simply doesn’t owe it. What she does owe the community – as well as the whole planet, I suppose – is a duty to take care of herself and try to build a strong, sustainable, and ethical business. Once she’s taking care of herself, once she has a business that can sustain itself or even a business that looks like it might, that is the moment that she can begin to dig into how to pay forward in a bigger way. And that’s what she was trying to do.
To me to host a workshop under a hundred dollars that literally would save the individual taking it a few thousand – as well as increase their life competencies – is absolutely a gift and should be seen in that lens.
I wish I could say this was an isolated incident. But guess what? It gets creepier.
Over the last few years I’ve seen an increasing number of brands – usually brands who are doing pretty well financially, or have a strong holding in a niche of the market – start to leverage their brand itself as being “activism” and therefore superior to other brands. There are two problems with this. While I believe this is technically possible of course – that a for-profit brand is also “activism”, I want to point out the obvious. My brand is centered in ethics and activism yes, but I also make a wage from my work. (Much, but not all of) my work puts food on my table and it cannot be regarded purely as activism.
But the second issue I have with this, is even creepier – and sneakier.
Many brands who frame their profit-earnings as “activism” then use that opportunity to cast shade – obliquely or in bold-face – on brands that don’t perform “activism” in exactly the same way, on the same terms.
This means a brand that’s found a lovely money-making niche, cleverly spins their niche positioning itself as a gift-from-the-heart, casting aspersions on other brands – many times, brands that are much smaller and struggling to get a corner of the market.
It’s insidious. It’s sneaky. It’s gross.
Some of you know that I run the TINY HORROR HUG CLUB, a program where I provide couture and fashion gifts to trans and gender nonconforming individuals at no cost to them. It is a small program – because I am just one person. But it is absolutely true that every individual who receives garments and fashion gifts from me within that program receives them absolutely free. No cost to them whatsoever.
Can you imagine if I were to then start saying that any business that charges trans individuals money for clothing, is therefore unethical – or not “accessible”?
Sadly, the very framing of “accessible” is often used in a very manipulative fashion. Health care, a safe home, freedom from violence – these are things that should be accessible to all people (and alas, are not). But I have seen absolute luxury items criticized for not being “accessible” (in other words: free or dirt-cheap). For this reason – and a few others – I don’t prefer to call any particular non-essential product “accessible” (and therefore others by inference as “not accessible”). “Accessible” is like “affordable” – used against Creatives to pressure them to work for cheap – and entirely subjective terms especially when so many artisans offer up no-interest payment plans (which involve time, effort, and risk on the part of an already-beleaguered solopreneur).
Even my own “free” couture – I don’t call it “accessible” at all. I simply speak about price points. So I would say, for example, that my acquaintances’ workshop was offered at a very low price point – low cost. My TINY HORROR HUG CLUB is a no-cost offering.
So I leave the term “accessible” and “affordable” out of it because lately “accessible” and “affordable” are just cudgels we are using with more and more license. We are expecting top quality goods and services and we are expecting these provided to us for free or at poverty wage. Worst of all, we are expecting them on our terms. This is just another way we have allowed capitalism to squeeze small businesses into our own selfish aims. I find this behavior repulsive and I won’t participate in it – period.
If you are a small business that desperately wants to give, please know that there are absolutely ways you can give very generous gifts indeed. The strategies you might want to employ are very important and I recommend proceeding with a lot of caution – because your strategies need to work alongside your sustainability planning, and they need to work with your specific business model. I’m always available to help you with this if you want more help. To be honest, learning how to give forward in an ethical and sustainable way, can be pretty tricky. But it is completely possible, so please don’t give up!
I will leave you with one more point.
If you ever find yourself in the position for being criticized that you don’t give enough free loot, look very carefully at the specific people who are criticizing you. Have they supported you meaningfully – in any way? Have they invested any time or care? Have they spent a dollar at your shop? Do they themselves have ethics that you look up to and admire? Do they truly appreciate your skills and products – or are they just wanting a handout?
Take care of yourself. Build your sustainable business. Once you can see that future coming true in your cash forecast (please create a cash forecast!), then yes do explore ways to give your amazing products, services, and expertise forward via low cost and no cost opportunities.
Because I do think at the point you are taking care of yourself, and your business will sustain – then yes. Yes I do think you own something to the marginalized, oppressed, to those who are struggling. But you owe that on your terms with your gifts, in a way that makes best sense to you.
Take care of yourself, homies. I believe in you!