The National AfterSchool Association is the leading voice of the afterschool profession dedicated to development, education, and care of children and youth during their out of school hours.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Free or Fee

If you contemplate both words, you’ll notice that free is similar to fee except with a letter R inserted. As an afterschool leader worried about long-term sustainability, I often agonize over what we offer in programs for free and what should be offered with a fee. Even within a membership association, I think there are long-term ramifications for providing too much for free too much of the time.

There are problems with free.

If you’ve ever attended a state or national conference, I’ll bet that, like me, you’ve picked up dozens of free items in your welcome bag or from the exhibit areas. Even though you were appreciative and pleased to receive those items at the time, now you probably can’t remember what any of those items were. And when it was time to pack for your return home and you couldn’t get your suitcase closed, you probably thought nothing of leaving those free items behind.  Because you had nothing personally invested in them – and because they were free - they got tossed! The problem with freebies is that over time they maintain little value. People don't value what they get for free. Free is disposable.

Consider this: You see a free training offered nearby. They offer free coffee, snacks, meals, and a pretty decent presenter. Would you miss it? For those who indicate that they wouldn’t, there are many more that would. People turn up sporadically for free offerings or not at all. Yet when trainings have a prepaid cost, attendance is high.

Now think about this: When nonprofit afterschool programs are structured so that all participants and parents are invited without any charge, we are setting up a system that devalues almost everything we’ve worked extremely hard to do. People might flock to the program at first, but they'll eventually value it like everything else that they receive that is free - food, clothing, coffee, training, and much more. Free is disposable.

Certainly, the offer of ‘free’ generates feelings of appreciation. But will your parents really feel a loss if the free afterschool program their kids attend is suddenly taken away? Is anyone entitled to anything being free?

We value most that what we’ve actually paid for. You think twice about casting aside something that you've earned with your own sweat equity or money, and you find a way to shove it in your suitcase or keep it close to you. We create sustainability problems for our afternoon programs (as well as our professional associations) when we give them away for free.

Without doubt, some parents would rally for the cause if their program went away, but far too many wouldn’t. We have to find ways to add to the value of afterschool. Even if what you offer must be provided free, we need to change that perception. People are accustomed to free things and experiences being flaky and unreliable. People want to connect with something they can count on. The R in free must stand for responsibility and relationship.

It might be controversial to suggest this, but afterschool programs need some barriers to entry and a sense of exclusivity that increases the perception of value. Exclusivity is quickly eroded by free. Yet, free is very hard to sustain. No one can overcome innumerable difficulties for long periods of time and pour energy into unsustainable endeavors that have very little if any financial return.

What do you think? Does the “free-ness” of afterschool outweigh the challenges of structures based on fees or other costs for enrollment?  Can “free-ness” ever achieve long-term sustainability? Looking to the future, do you think we should be cautious and thoughtful about giving our program offerings away for nothing in return and with no investment from those who benefit most?

Value is increased in afterschool programs when people connect with you and your staff!  Relationships matter. Shared knowledge and experiences create exclusivity. But to assure that we can attract and keep the very best people so those relationships continue to increase in value, we must pay them well to keep them so that we achieve the outcomes we expect to get.

That can’t be sustained when programs are free.

Paul G. Young, Ph.D.
President & CEO
National AfterSchool Association

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