Everything costs something

A number of years back I was at an educational technology show in Ohio.  A very young teacher walked up to me at my booth to check out my product.  But before she asked anything, she told me she was an elementary school teacher and that she should get the product for free.  After all, it was for the kids.

My answer was inappropriate and unduly curt.  I told her “My son needs speech and physical therapy.  I think those therapists should provide those services for free.  He needs a 1:1 helper.  And that helper should work for free.  After all, it is for the child.”  The teacher didn’t quite catch my point and walked away from the booth.

I very quickly realized I was being quite a jerk, ran out of the booth to to find her and her senior staff member, and profusely apologized and begged for forgiveness for being one.  Her heart was in the right place and I was completely insensitive.  I “owned” my attitude toward her and have worked for a long while after that outburst to understand how differing perspectives on what should “cost” something in education have come to be.

That interaction really stuck with me and has informed a large vein in my career as a vendor in educational technology.  The relationship between public and private —  between free and pay — between the work you give away because you “just should” and how it relates to the things you are paid to do — these relationships are complex and not black and white.  Giving things away isn’t always altruism.  But neither is it always self-centered promotion.  And taking them isn’t always “selling out.”  But neither is it always wise, depending on who is doing the giving.

In a community relations program I help fomalize at one of my employers, we were empowered to give away quite a bit of services to organizations that may or may not have been able to afford it — but who always had an excellent plan about how those services would benefit education at large.  As an executive on the vendor or grantor side, one could choose to look at these “giveaways” in a few different ways:

  • “Feel-good” public relations
  • Seeding the market with the service in useful places where people likely wouldn’t have paid, but who are thought leaders
  • Seeding prospects and helping them grow to a point where they would buy in the future.
  • “Blocking” a competitive sale because you strategically give away your stuff to key organizations who will speak highly of you

Wise “grantor” organizations that don’t only look at investments on a quarter-by-quarter basis would probably look at all of these perspectives.  Less progressive organizations could look only at the  “why are we wasting time giving away free stuff” angle.

From the “grantee” perspective there are equally difficult perspectives to navigate. Some grantee organziations may choose to say no to a donation from a vendor because they may feel an obligation to “shill” for the company.  They may feel like anything in education that is for profit always has an nefarious reason to give something away.  Or they may be trying to leave their own organzation and get a job at the grantor company.

All viable and real perspectives.

Most appropriate and valuable to all is when the grantor and grantee realize that they depend on one another.  The vendor has some financial goals and the educational organization has some educational targets and the granting of free or low-cost service in exchange for authentic and public feedback in a variety of ways — from conference sponsorship or speaking slots to press interviews — can be  mutually beneficial.

In a future post I will write some good ways for granting vendors to incur the trust of the grantee organziations and ways that the grantee organziations can be most successful in making requests of vendors.