Alex Gabriel has written an article about 10 Ways to Make Sure the Atheist Movement Is Not Just for the Wealthy. I mostly agree with it, but I’d add another point, and his #8 is, well, problematic.
8. Pay your speakers—well.
Speakers’ fees are commonplace in U.S. atheism. Britain lags far behind. It shows. Our speaking circuit is far whiter, wealthier and more dominated by academics and national groups’ staff. It’s far less accessible to bloggers, artists, filmmakers and people who aren’t stably employed. This happens when speaking isn’t recognised as work.
Covering expenses—say, for travel—is not enough. Good speakers put hours into talks. They’re writers, researchers, editors, lecturers, comedians, orators, things we pay people to be. They’re often discussing costly activism. (Jonny Scaramanga, whose blog about creationist exam papers went viral recently, spends huge sums getting hold of them.) Speaking for free means a real-terms loss even before expenses: the hours of work that go into it, as with graphic designers, could have gone into paying the rent. Academics, wealthy authors and the stably employed comprise most of our speakers because they can afford this loss. Others can’t. You need to cover it.
Given what U.S. speakers earn, the minimum wage and the skill involved, I recommend offering a $200 honorarium. You can’t afford that? Bollocks.
Humanist assemblies: you found 20 people to pay for your childcare. Now find 40 to put extra dough on the collection plate (better still, give it by monthly direct debit). Student groups: charge non-members that much on the door. Foundations like Todd Stiefel or Richard Dawkins will sponsor local groups. Secular authors will donate books to fundraising sales. Online atheists will donate to your page. For more ideas, see Darrel Ray’s advice.
If you can’t pay all your speakers yet, ask them to consider waiving the fee if they’re well off. Don’t allow negotiation. Higher and lower individual fees mean a race to the bottom where those who’ll work for least get booked the most. You’re trying to prevent that.
First of all, there’s a tell here that Alex doesn’t know much about the conference circuit: first he says to pay speakers well, and then he gets to specifics, and he says…$200. That line would get a laugh if he were Dr Evil.
You are asking a professional to take two or three days out of their schedule to grace your event, and you think $200 is fair compensation for that much of their time? Add another zero, and maybe $2000 would be more like it; a few hundred bucks is just plain insulting. Are you seriously going to call up Richard Dawkins and entice him to sign on by waving a few bills at him?
Even I am not anywhere near the mid-tier of conference draws, and I would find it weird to be offered a few bucks to show up. I do it because I care about this movement and want to see it grow, and also because I personally think my views are an important contribution — I lose money every time I go off to speak anywhere (I have to have my basic travel expenses covered so I don’t fiscally bleed to death, but all the little details I just pay out of pocket), but it’s worth it to see atheism growing.
I’m relatively well-off, though, with a stable job and a reasonable lower middle class salary; I would waive any honorarium because I don’t need it. I think it is fair to offer some general compensation to cover the miscellaneous expenses of those who aren’t quite as secure as I am, but I’m not too keen on expecting conferences, especially the home-grown free ones, to cover the expenses of a professional atheist lecturing class, even while recognizing that it’s necessary to expand our list of potential speakers.
You know what I would appreciate as an honorarium? Instead of paying me, tell me that X hundred dollars will be invested in scholarships to cover the cost of bringing in attendees who wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford the event. That’s what matters.
Or if you do want to help out the working people who are encouraging atheism in their spare time, look realistically at their mean income and estimate what they’d earn over your conference weekend if they stayed home and roofed houses or did company accounting or sold televisions at their local Best Buy, and offer them that. Someone like me would still waive the fee, but contributors who are otherwise trying to make ends meet would finally be able to use their talents well.
I said I would also add a #11 to his list of ten.
#11. Take advantage of local talent.
I see a lot of the same faces, drawn from the same big national and international pool of well-known atheists, and effective as they are at being a good draw for an event, it’s also important to grow the local talent pool. Sure, try to get one or three recognizable big names, but don’t make the conference revolve around them — they’ll be leaving the moment the conference ends…or as I’ve seen a few times, they’ll flit in just before their hour lecture, and then they’re off to the airport immediately after.
It’s the locals, or perhaps regional or state-wide people, who are going to hang around and make a difference, and who will be aware of the specific issues your attendees are dealing with. Make a commitment to have at least half your speakers be drawn from the same group as your attendees — and if you want to bring in more atheists from the black community or the poor or the working class, try to bring in speakers from that very same demographic.