DTI Answers: “Should Doulas Work for Free?”

DTI educators are always asked at trainings whether new doulas should volunteer their services or provide them at a low cost during the certification period. We hear:

How can you charge for something you aren’t experienced in?
How is your worth similar to a doula who has supported more than 100 birthing people?
My area is saturated with low-cost doulas. How can I charge more?
Giving back and helping people who don’t have access to resources is vitally important to me. How does this fit in with a thriving business?   

should doulas work for free

Within the doula community these questions are raised again and again, with some doula organizations requiring trained doulas to volunteer their services and others adamantly opposed to it. Some doulas provide services for free only to realize their time was not valued by the client and they weren’t called when labor started. Some may lose a significant amount of money arranging childcare, taking off work, and paying for gas/tolls—not to mention the cost of their training.

Doula Trainings International teaches doulas that your time is valuable, your worth is of value, and you are qualified to go out there and start charging a living wage from the beginning. Walking away from our comprehensive training and entering into our 9-month mentorship program, you have all the skills and mental preparation needed to begin supporting families through their births and postpartum period, and you have the ability to charge a wage for your time that fairly compensates you.

But maybe you have a business model in mind that focuses on low-income clients, or you have a great social justice passion driving you towards working with clients who may not have been able to afford or access doula services. While there are a variety of ways to meet those needs and still earn a living wage, there is no one right answer for every doula.

That’s why DTI stresses autonomy, both for our birthing clients and for ourselves and our businesses. Collaborative entrepreneurship means there are ways to work together to forge new paths, new models of business sustainability and passion. A running theme for DTI is just this: collaborative entrepreneurship and how to create a thriving business model for yourself which nourishes both you and your community.

I asked DTI doulas at various stages of their career about sustainability and charging their worth. Many mentioned the toll on their families and finances that providing services free-of-charge can bring:

alisonvBeing away from my kids is a HUGE sacrifice for me. And since I am their only parent in the state right now and we homeschool, every choice I make to work is a choice to leave them. I explain to my clients why I charge as I do and try not to apologize for my financial reality. (Alison Vawter Boissonnas, New Woodstock, NY)

Recently, I have found that I am working at an unsustainable rate for myself. To date, I have lost more money on attending births than I have gained. Between toll fees,dantia gas, lost income at my full-time job (days missed to attend a birth, and days off to recover from births that occurred during the workweek), hospital parking fees, and a parking violation received while attending births. Although being a doula has never been about the money for me, working for free is not sustainable for me. I have made a promise to myself to either find a way to make doula services affordable for low-income clients or find other ways to aid in the fight for doulas for all. At the moment, I cannot continue to give away such a valuable service for free because in doing so, I am doing myself and my family a disservice. (Dantia Hudson, Oakland, Calif.)

christinehWhen it comes to setting my price and knowing my worth, it personally has less to do with “how much do I need to bring in” and more to do with “what amount of money is worth me spending time away from my family.” While I used to knock myself for feeling like this, I certainly don’t shy away from it anymore! I have learned to wear it as a badge of honor, and it is something that I have learned has meant a great deal to my clients. I would not be likely to take on a reduced fee or free client. The exception that I would make to this is for active duty military families and those whose spouses are on deployment. (Christine Halldorson, Seeds of Life Birth Services, Easton, PA)

Are there other ways DTI doulas give back to their communities besides free births?

I am a independent contractor for the By My Side Doula Support Program with the Department of Health in Brooklyn [grant funded]. I serve families through this program who live in simonetneighborhoods of high infant mortality and qualify for WIC (Women, Infant and Children). I teach a breastfeeding or childbirth ed class a few times a year for free to a shelter or clinic. For me it’s still networking and getting my name and brand known, so I’m comfortable with that. Last year I also was a breastfeeding peer counselor for a WIC program in Brownsville. This program provides nutritional and breastfeeding support to various communities. Communities such as Brownsville, East New York and areas of Bedstuy are at the heart of the matter with high infant mortality and low breastfeeding rates. When we look at these areas resources are very sparse. (Simone Toomer, Wise Womban Doula, Brooklyn, NY)

At the moment, grant funding makes the most financial sense in order to compensate myself for my services while also providing services to low-income families. I have my master’s in public health and will be using my research skills to contribute to disparities-related research. I recently began assisting a local professor in her childbirth-related research helping to analyze and write summaries of interviews conducted with African American women about their birthing experiences. I have also been working on my prenatal yoga certification and plan to offer those services to birthing people of color when the time comes. I have also begun mentoring younger doulas of color in the Bay Area through a doula mentorship program. So while my services aren’t always directly related to being a doula myself, I make it a point to be involved with birth disparities in one way or another. (Dantia Hudson)

I would love to work on grant writing, nonprofit status, or with a scholarship program to be able to afford to work at a lower rate. I might work at a lower rate to gain experience in other areas of my birth work, too. Full spectrum doula work or work with incarcerated clients, for example. I am a La Leche League Leader and lead a monthly meeting open to all. I am working within my community to help families understand that birth and nursing are not solely the work of people who identify as women. I also teach classes in infant massage and am creating a childbirth education curriculum. In all these places I use inclusive language and try to normalize the experiences of diverse families. (Alison Vawter Boissonnas)

When doulas are fairly compensated for their working hours and for their intense emotional, intellectual, and physical labor, they are able to make strategic business decisions about their mission and purpose in their community. They are able to see new ways of supporting their communities while also thriving personally, and they may realize that volunteer births are not necessarily solving their community’s most pressing needs. Hosting a used clothing and baby supplies drive, facilitating a monthly free breastfeeding or childbirth ed session in targeted communities, working with local governments to promote grant programs for paid doula services available to low income birthing people—these are all ways to get your business and brand recognition out in the community while also giving back in a way that is more sustainable than free births.

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