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Working on the Sliding Scale: Advice for Perplexed Sole Practitioners

Many of my clients in the creative arts maintain part-time professional practices. Often they wish to work within the creative communities to which they belong. Soon they find themselves providing pro-bono and cut-rate services to starving artists, struggling notfor-profits, and others with scant resources, racking up long hours, and failing to meet their own income needs. As socially conscious artists, they feel torn between their generous wish to provide services for people in the community at a price they can afford and the need to make sufficient income in a limited number of hours to afford themselves the freedom to pursue their creative passions. Socially conscious solo practitioners working full-time in their chosen fields—graphic designers, psychotherapists, architects, body workers and others--often find themselves in the same position, wanting to be kind, wanting to meet their income needs, wanting to follow their calling and to have a life outside their professional commitments, yet unable to reconcile these apparently divergent purposes. If you find yourself in this position, the chances are that you’ve not yet found a simple,  intuitively appealing means of solving the problem once and for all. As a result, you probably find yourself struggling case by case trying to decide how to price your work, how much time to give to low-income clients, and whether taking another client is worth the inevitable loss of time for your creative work or your outside life. If this is you, here are ten simple that will enable you to work well on sliding scale. 1. Decide the range of your sliding scale in advance (don’t make decisions on the spot); 2. Divide your scale into 3 basic price levels; 3. Determine your own income objective for the practice (i.e. How much do I need to make each week, each month?); 4. Determine the maximum number of hours that you will give to your practice per week or per month; 5. Multiply this number by 0.8. This is the number of hours per week or month within which you should meet your income objective. That is to say you should comfortably exceed your income objective if you actually work 100% of the hours you’ve decided to give to your practice. For example, let’s suppose that you are a visual artists with a part-time art therapy practice.  You’ve determined that you have fifteen hours a week in which to see  clients. Each client session is 50 minutes long. Allowing for transition times, this schedule permits you to see a maximum of fifteen clients per week.  You’ve decided that your gross revenue requirement from your art therapy practice is $1,000 per week. This means that you should organize and price your practice so that you can make $1,000 per week in no more than twelve billable hours. If you bill 15 hours in a given week, your income would exceed your $1,000 minimum. 6. Figure out how many hours you can work at each price-point, given the 80 percent of

available hours rule and meet your income objective. Be totally honest here. Let’s continue the example.  Say your basic rate for a one-hour session is $125.00, but you have decided that you will also see some clients at $50 or $75 an hour based on their ability to pay. You know that you cannot bill all 12 hours at the $50 per session rate. This would leave you with only $600 in income. Similarly, billing $75 per session for all 12 hours would only bring you $900. So you will need to strike a sensible balance between the hours you bill at each price level. 7. Limit your number of hours at the lowest and middle price-points accordingly. Returning to our example, if you were to see 5 patients at your $125 basic rate, 3 at $75 per session and 4 at $50, you would make $1025 for the 12 hours, thus meeting your income objective, your time budget and your desire to provide your services to clients with limited means. 8. Having defined your limits at the lower and mid price points on your scale, stick to them--only take an additional client at one of these price points when a previously filled slot opens up. (To do otherwise is not generous; it’s self-destructive. Remember your practice provides you the resources to live the life you want and to do noble things outside your practice, but only if it meets your real income needs.); 9. Price any hours above the 80 percent at full price. (Doing the last 20 percent of the work is tiring and you deserve to be rewarded for the extra effort.) Following our example, if you’ve billed 12 hours this week and you have the  opportunity to pick-up three more sessions, bill them at $125.  You’ll feel a sense of abundance that will fuel both your practice and your creative life. 10. Seek out and take only clients with whom you truly want to work.  You’ll be happier  and so will they. © Marc Zegans 2011