Something that comes up very often in the doula world is regarding how the wage of newer doulas compares to that of doulas who have amassed more experience and education. Often times I see statements like:
“I just finished my training and I am offering my services for free while I work on my certification process.”
“I would like to offer a steeply discounted rate until I reach X amount of clients then I will go up in price.”
“I don’t feel comfortable charging the same as someone who has attended 100 births while I have never attended one.”
There is not a right or a wrong way to address this, and there are many factors that may influence your business decisions. So here are a few things to keep in mind as you start your business and seek to design a framework that will provide a living wage, effect positive change in the world around you, and uplift Utah families as they seek to find their perfect fit in a doula.
This interactive worksheet will serve as a helpful framework for you to plan ahead and see what things might have to take a backseat to lower pricing if you choose to go that route.
“Very low wages always come at a cost.”
Very low wages always come at a cost. They may come at a cost to you, in the form of income that is not equal to a living wage or maybe it even costs you financially to support your passion in birth work. It may come at a cost to your client. At a lower wage you may find that you cannot afford continuing education, or maybe you can’t be reliable for longer childbirth experiences, or you may not be able to afford a quality backup doula when the need arises. It may even come at a cost to the community at large in the way of limitations surrounding your ability to support community projects such as International Cesarean Awareness Network, local breastfeeding support groups, positive birth groups, leadership opportunities, etc. It can also affect whether or not potential clients can find you or how you come across to them without quality materials/branding. It is unfortunate that some doulas even choose to pursue unethical business practices such as not paying taxes or foregoing the operation of a legal business setup such as an LLC. All of this is fluid, and only you can decide what is sustainable for your doula practice. Play with this spreadsheet, or download it and make changes to reflect your own experience.
OFFERING FREE SERVICES:
There are doulas who offer their services on a sliding scale or offer scholarships to those who can demonstrate financial need or who may be experiencing other extenuating circumstances. For various reasons a client may not be able to afford birth support or may have a situation where the doula may feel that costly services would not be appropriate; such as a teen mom, a parent carrying a terminal baby to full-term, a person who is recovering from an addiction, someone who has left an abusive relationship, etc. For the sake of this post, I want to state that these doulas who give so graciously of their time and hearts in such circumstances should be honored and appreciated for giving so freely of themselves to vulnerable Utah families. The world needs doulas like this and I for one am so very grateful that there are doulas who are in the position to offer this much-needed support. Their efforts truly heal the world.
“…these doulas who give so graciously of their time and hearts in such circumstances should be honored and appreciated for giving so freely of themselves to vulnerable Utah families.”
Let’s turn our attention to birth work and how necessary it is to run a profitable business in order to survive in the long term. When you signed up for training, secured a mentorship opportunity, set up your LLC, purchased those supplies, or certified with that professional organization, no doubt you had to pay at least a few hundred dollars upfront. In addition to the training itself, no matter how long or short, there were travel expenses, meal expenses, and childcare expenses to name a few. Unfortunately, it is not uncommon to be “in the hole” several hundred to thousands of dollars right off the bat. It’s certainly an investment in your business, but with investments, you should expect a return. If you begin your journey in the birth community offering free services, how long will it take you to get a return on your investment? If you are offering a quality service, Utah families WILL find you! However, part of providing a quality service starts with valuing what you personally have to offer and communicating that to your target market. That takes time, resources, education, and sometimes patience.
“If you are offering a quality service, Utah families WILL find you!”
INVESTING IN YOUR BUSINESS FUTURE:
Meanwhile, if you get those first few clients and aren’t charging enough to cover your basic expenses will that make an impact on the quality of service you are capable of providing? Will you have to maintain a traditional 9-5 job in order to supplement the accumulating debt? The costs can add up quickly! Before you know it, that figurative money-hole you are already in is getting deeper. If you do that 3-5 times before charging, that’s a sure-fire path to doula-burnout. The struggle is real! You will now have created a major deficit for your business from the very beginning, and will that stress come with you into the sacred birth space you hope to create for your clients? Attending childbirth is rewarding, especially when our basic needs are met! You know what else is rewarding? Getting a massage to nurture sore muscles following a particularly long birth, mentoring another doula who could really benefit from your support, or taking a vacation from on-call life. Self-care is essential to maintaining the peaceful disposition necessary to provide a quality service.
When deciding if offering a sliding scale may be appropriate many doulas find that an application/vetting process is a good approach, or maybe a candid conversation may be more your style. You may have a minimum wage you are willing to work for. Perhaps you will base this number off of your basic costs assessed in the spreadsheet above. Making sure your basic expenses are covered is crucial to preventing doula-burnout!
Many doulas, new or more experienced, offer their services for partial barter or trade. This is a helpful way to meet the needs of those who want or need a doula but cannot afford one. Even if a potential client cannot pay monetarily, they can offer other substitutes that may have value to them. If a family wants a doula but doesn’t have the income to support it, can they trade you for handyman work, square foot gardening design, custom sewing work, cleaning services, freezer meals, etc? The sky is the limit! Just ask them if they have a special skill they would be able to trade for. Chances are they will be so grateful you gave them the opportunity to pay you in that way. It is important to note that all of this is still taxable income, and that is why you may only be able to offer “partial” trade so as not to end up paying money in order to attend the birth.
“It is important to note that all of this is still taxable income, and that is why you may only be able to offer “partial” trade so as not to end up paying money in order to attend the birth.”
DOULAS IN TRAINING:
So now you have completed your training and you are anxious to get started. You recognize for you and your business you will not offer your services for free, but you don’t know how you feel about charging “full-price” or “a living wage.” Personally, I charged less for my first few births. I felt it was fair for me and my clients. Yes, I had all the training, I had spent a chunk of money, but obviously, I did not have the experience yet. I am here to tell you that experience is relative. Every birth is so different! My first client had a birth that strayed very far from her original birth plan. I felt so helpless and frankly, useless! Do you know what she told me?
“I couldn’t have done it without you there. Thank you so much for everything you did.”
Years of experience doesn’t make you the best doula. Your empathy, your compassion, your presence and your love makes you the best doula for your client.
Sell your passion, not your inexperience!
Charging less for “certifying births” is not inherently wrong, especially if it feels right to you. I did it and I don’t regret it. But, remember to value yourself, your time, your effort, and your finances. When you value yourself, your clients will do the same. If you choose to go this route just be sure to get to the point where you are operating a business that comes at a cost to no one when you have reached the level of experience you feel is comparable.
CHARGING A LIVING WAGE:
When you are deciding on your full fee, it is a good idea to look at what other doulas in your area are charging. Most doulas endeavor to make a living with this work; they have weighed the costs and charge what they do for a reason. Keep in mind that for many doulas, this business is their total monthly income. They are the breadwinner in the family, and a living wage directly impacts their survival and quality of life. We want to nurture professionalism, and seek to build bridges rather than create resentment or make it harder on our fellow doulas in Utah’s birth community.
“…and a living wage directly impacts their survival and quality of life.”
The average business lifespan here in Utah for a doula is around two years. Two years! That’s it! It is a challenge to build a business and many find it to be too much in the end. Don’t let doula-burnout happen to you. Make sure that birth work is not coming at a cost to you or your clients. Make sure to value and honor yourself, your clients, your family, and your time. You are enough!
Melissa Olson owner of Bundles of Joy Doula Services. Melissa is also the chair of two committees this year on the Utah Doula Association. She is currently in school for massage therapy where she hopes to specialize in Pre/postnatal massage. When she isn’t in school, studying, or attending births you can find her running around in the mountains with her fur children.