‘Exposure’ Doesn’t Pay the Bills
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‘Exposure’ Doesn’t Pay the Bills

Your diversity, equity and inclusion work might be halfway done. Advice to companies before asking BIPOC business owners give their time and expertise for free.

Editor’s note: Field Guide Inc. CEO Mary Quinn McCallum shared an earlier version of this column on LinkedIn and we thought it was worth sharing more broadly.

A couple of years ago, I received an email requesting that one of my clients speak at an equity diversity and inclusion (EDI) workshop for a major Twin Cities corporation’s staff. I’ve been thinking about it lately because I now get similar requests several times a week. The client they were inquiring about is a person of color, and the message read something like this:

“Dear Mary, We love what your client is doing! They have a great story, and we want to make it part of the Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion program for our staff by having them speak at our upcoming event and fundraiser. We hope they can join us for an hour and give a presentation about their story and work. Also, it would be great if they could provide us with some items for our silent auction and perhaps some shout-outs on social media!”

It’s an email I’ve received more times than I can count in my work as a communications consultant, publicist, and brand manager. Since my niche is supporting independent businesses, nonprofits, and social enterprises that strive to make the world a better place, I am very fortunate to have the trust of some very special people. Because I am a white woman and many of these people are Black, Indigenous, or people of color (BIPOC), I do not take this trust lightly or view it as an uncomplicated matter.
As global awareness of social and racial inequities has increased, I have been heartened to see an uptick in interest around learning from others that includes listening to leaders and entrepreneurs of color. Many of those leaders have been receiving steady streams of requests for their services, thoughts, and perspectives.

All these invitations and expressions of interest are welcome, to be sure. So, why can’t I shake this feeling that something just ain’t right? Maybe it’s because when I read emails like the one I described above through a racial equity lens, here’s what they sound like:

“My company wants to show that it values diversity and inclusion and we would like xx person of color/immigrant /refugee to help us in this endeavor—to work on behalf of our successful company, so our organization can demonstrate the value we place on diversity and exemplify the seriousness of our efforts—FOR FREE.”

Stop. Rewind. Pause for reflection. Asking any professional to offer their services to another professional organization without compensation can be inappropriate. Most people have already made their own decisions about where, and in what capacity they want to give their time and/or money to support an organization or cause. But asking a BIPOC professional to offer their services free of charge, especially a service that is aimed at showcasing your organization’s commitment to diversity, is even more so. “Spotlighting diverse voices,” as is often the way these “opportunities” are framed, is a step in the right direction, but it is not enough.

By stopping there, your organization is safeguarding the very power structure that has long marginalized and exploited BIPOC individuals and communities to benefit people of European heritage. For centuries, the use of free or under-compensated labor has enriched white people and ensured that they retain power and authority. So, when a profitable organization uses its existing standing and authority to consume BIPOC services or intellectual property for free, it is participating in this long tradition of injustice even if it is doing so in the name of advancing EDI goals.

How? Because if you are still asking for someone else’s free labor to benefit your organization, bolster your authority, and burnish your public image, you are participating in a discriminatory transaction. I.e., you gain something, and the other person does not.

Typically, but not always, these emails are signed by a lower-ranking staffer, an intern, or even a volunteer. Leaders and decision-makers, I am asking you to level up: In order to “be the change” you “want to see” in the world, you must put guidance and policies in place so that all members of your organization understand that they are pursuing someone’s labor and have the resources needed for fair compensation.

When I respond to these inquiries, I thank the sender sincerely for their interest because it is indeed truly appreciated, and then I ask about their budget. My question is usually met with an awkward pause, followed by something along the lines of, “Well, we don’t have one” or “Hmm. I am not sure! I’ll try to find out.”

You can’t pay the rent with Instagram ‘likes.’

Every now and then, this is later followed by, “Good news! We can offer this very small (token) stipend, or a gift card, or a donation to a nonprofit on the speaker’s behalf.” Another common response is: “We don’t have any money to offer, but we will be sure to mention them on our website/newsletter/social media.” The vague promise of “exposure” is held out as if it were the equivalent of real compensation. It is not. The future benefits of exposure, however, are far less certain than the cost-savings for an organization whose EDI campaign is being subsidized by free labor. (You can’t pay the rent with Instagram “likes.”)

These sorts of exchanges are what I am hoping to help eradicate. For good. You can help!

When decision-makers invite thought-leaders of color to join their organization for an engagement meant to enrich and educate their staff, they do so because they believe whatever is imparted will be valuable to their organization. However, it is, to put it plainly, wrong to ask people who have been disadvantaged to give you something valuable, especially when it’s framed as a great opportunity for them while offering nothing tangible in return. Practices of this kind are sometimes criticized as “performative allyship,” but that label, with its suggestion of empty symbolic action, doesn’t go far enough because by taking uncompensated labor from oppressed people, organizations are participating in a power structure that shows up in many forms: from overt and intentional to less obvious, subtle, and unintentional.

The name for this system is white supremacy.

Don’t freak out. I’m not shouting at you. Please keep reading.

The people who perpetuate this system don’t all wear white hats and burn crosses. White supremacy is insidious, in part, because it is so easy for well-intentioned people who truly oppose racial injustice, to reproduce it (stay with me) just by going with the flow—even when they are expressly taking action to promote the goals of equity and inclusion. What I’m saying is, that the consequences of our actions don’t always match our intentions. To live up to our best ideals, including our anti-racist ideals, we (and I include myself here!) have to actively root out all of the ways that our organizational practices may reproduce the things we oppose in earnest.

True confession: I have been complicit in this system, too, for my whole life. I am learning every day.

In my role, it’s my job to advocate for my clients and match them with opportunities that amplify and advance their missions. As a white person, I believe that it is also my job to push organizations to truly and holistically valuing voices that have been historically underrepresented and remain marginalized today. This is met with a variety of reactions.
If you are reading this and feeling defensive, I understand. If you’ve reached out to me in the manner I’ve described here and now feel that I’m calling you out, I am not. I’m identifying an opportunity. I am calling us into a conversation that is long overdue.

This is where I ask for your buy-in. Please consider the following things the next time you want to approach a leader or entrepreneur of color to add value to your organization:

  • Begin with this mindset: “I am asking for help to create an opportunity for myself and the people in my organization to learn and grow. “
  • Remove this sort of language: “This will be great exposure for your client!” Exposure is not payment. They are not synonymous.
  • If you are doing something to help others or to raise awareness or funds for a great cause and truly have no budget, just say it! Be direct, and understand that the person you are asking just might say no, because it’s not a fit or because they are maxed out on giving—especially in industries where margins are slim, and staffing is a challenge.
  • Self-audit: if your organization is spending money on things like influencers, white “experts,” swag, or party favors for your project or event, you should be offering leaders of color at least comparable compensation.
  • Before approaching BIPOC leaders, prepare to pay a speaker’s fee. Have it in your budget and at the ready before making any ask.
  • Are you making a video for your project or event? Ensure that the production value is equivalent for every person of every background. Don’t give your VIP white presenters the “gold” package and offer the “bronze” package to BIPOC talent.
  • If your request has anything to do with leveraging someone else’s race, life experience, or culture, be prepared to pay. Whether your motivation is to attract a more diverse workforce, educate your staff, establish clout with stakeholders or the public, or for the very best reason of all, to elevate culture and the society we live in, be prepared to pay. Every time.
  • Finally, there is no substitute for actually walking the walk. If your field or organization is lacking diversity, look inward, not outward. Fix your organization from the inside out. It is not the job of experts of color to do it for you. Play the long game by establishing mentorship and scholarship programs to grow a more diverse workforce in your field and work toward a better future.

In following some of these simple guidelines, you will be sincerely showing your BIPOC colleagues, friends, and employees that they are valued, appreciated, and respected—not just for who they are but for the work that they do. I challenge you to show that representation matters by genuinely valuing and compensating people whose voices have been underrepresented and under-compensated for far too long. Let us honor our fellow human beings by making systemic, sustainable, and operational changes.

It’s on us, and it is (past) time.