Doula agency vs a collective: which is for you?

In 2016, DTI is focusing on collaborative entrepreneurship: how our individual practices can be strengthened through working together. If you’re a doula contemplating whether to join a group practice or stay solo, it’s worth considering the potential benefits and drawbacks of a doula agency vs a collective.

What is a doula collective?

doula collective vs agency

Atlanta Doula Collaborative at its inaugural event in 2016, a screening of The Milky Way

A collective (also known as a collaborative) is a model by which a group of doulas, who each sets up their own practice individually, comes together to participate in key activities such as special events for pregnant people, continuing education for doulas, business mastermind sessions, and weekend retreats. These efforts provide doulas with opportunities to stay in front of the community, as well as keep their spirits refreshed and business skills sharp. A monthly membership fee covers the cost. In our collective, Atlanta Doula Collaborative, members contribute $50/monthly and the co-founders contribute their time and talents to keep the website, events, and mentorship running smoothly.

Of course, with freedom to set up one’s own practice also comes additional responsibility. Collective members are not necessarily gaining clients directly from group activities. Our group made a commitment to support each other in as many different ways as possible, knowing that through this pooling of resources and sharing of experiences, we are stronger entrepreneurs than we would be alone.

This was an easy concept for our group to agree to—it’s the very reason we all chose the model of training offered through DTI. Experiencing that magnetic energy of doulas supporting doulas at our trainings—the kind of energy that leaves you truly changed and ready for more—left us with the desire to bring that concept to our work and communities. We have a private Facebook group where we stay connected and coordinate our events. When we have trouble nailing down a time to get together in person, we schedule a Skype call to talk through business challenges and hear feedback from the group. Right now, our group feels very balanced and robust in terms of experience level and interests, so our brainstorming is interesting and productive, even for those of us with a little more experience under our belts.

What is a doula agency?

In contrast, an agency is directly involved in the acquisition of new clients for its doulas. The agency owners are responsible for generating leads, scheduling interviews, and the execution of contracts and payments. Agencies invest in marketing, advertising and back-end systems, and will generally take a percentage of the doula’s fee (ranging from 10-20% or more) to cover these expenses.

Some agencies may have a system in place to provide vacation time/off-call days for its doulas. In this case, clients hire birth doula support, knowing there’s a possibility that any of the doulas from the agency could be present on the day she gives birth. Another possibility is the agency or client selects a back-up doula who is on call just in case but does not have primary responsibilities for any days. This means the client has assurance the doula she selected is more likely to be present.

Our very own Tara Brooke ran a doula agency for many years in New York City. Here is what she had to say about her own experience with the agency model:

“I ran an agency in NYC called Power of Birth. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it was the beginning of what solidified the importance of and the love I personally had of mentoring doulas. At Power of Birth, we worked out of a shared space where clients would call and request to book a birth and/or postpartum doula. After the meetings the client chose the primary as well as the back-up doula. I also was a third back up if ever needed.

I saw my job as not only managing the business but also as a mentor to doulas. I wanted to understand what it was that attracted each of the doulas to work with our model and help them reach their own business goals. Some of the doulas we worked with had no interest in being entrepreneurs and running the back end of a business. Others wanted to gain more experience to launch their own business. Power of Birth did not have any clause prohibiting our doulas from working for themselves or with other agencies. Autonomy for the doula was at the forefront of our business model and I wanted to actively support the doulas on our team to continue to grow in the way they wanted to.

I didn’t choose to run a collective because I had a love of business and the agency model appealed to me as a business I could own and run. I wanted to have a space to teach out of, to meet with my own clients, and to build out my doula career which was just beginning at the time. Although the agency model may not be for everyone, for me it was a time to launch my own career and find my love of mentoring doulas.”

Which is better for you?

Both structures have benefits and possible drawbacks. Agencies may relieve a great deal of stress for doulas who are not as interested in the entrepreneurship side of running a business. On the other hand, doulas serving a specific, well-defined set of needs may not want to limit their marketing to what fits within an already established, possibly generic brand identity. Solo practitioners can place a personalized touch on their services, creating a more boutique look and feel.

Not all agencies restrict doulas from marketing themselves outside of agency activities, though some owners will ask doulas to sign non-compete agreements. Collective members will always have the freedom to seek as many opportunities to generate business as possible, while also benefiting from shared events and marketing.

Both agencies and collectives may provide opportunities for support, mentorship and continuing education. Talk to affiliated members to get a sense of what that looks like in the group. In Atlanta, our group has a greater financial commitment than other doula groups in the area, allowing for more opportunities to grow.

Formalized back-up support is a definite benefit when working for an agency. A network for referrals and back-up support is also a benefit of being a collective member, though as noted above, an agency may provide more structure in terms of on-call/off-call days.

And finally, the client may experience a streamlined hiring process and an improved sense of trust when working with an agency. Collectives may experience fluctuation as doulas change direction career-wise, which could interfere with stability.

I hope this post has been helpful, especially if you’re a new doula trying to decide which groups you want to align yourself with. If you’re still unsure of which direction to go in, give it time and don’t rush into anything. Growing a doula business can be exciting, fun, and frustrating all at the same time, but just as with anything worth cultivating, it takes time to create something that’s reflective of the unique gifts you have to offer.

If you have had experience at a collaborative or an agency and would like to share it with us please do. What are your preferences in these models? What has worked well, or not, in your community? Thinking of starting your own collective or agency? Tell us about it!

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