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5 Reasons NOT to Join a Doula Agency

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I knew starting a postpartum doula agency might raise some eyebrows in the doula community. I wasn’t sure why, exactly, other than the fact that “new and different” tends to raise eyebrows. But wow did I come across a GOLDMINE of reasons just the other day, on a rant on social media from a well-respected doula in our area. Now, don’t get me wrong, I am not taking her post as if it were directed at me. But she has quite the following (for good reason – she has worked long and hard supporting and educating doulas and families), and so while the post might not be directed at me, I don’t think there’s any way around the fact that she has just used her influence in a way that directly disrespects me, my business, and my independent contractors (agency doulas). So, whether I like it or not, I feel obligated to respond.

The author, I’ve met her and seen her in action, is lovely. She’s experienced. She is, as my mom would say, “knee-slappingly” funny. Actually, closer to pee-in-your-pants funny. She’s compassionate and warm and wise and she’s really adored and revered by the doula community here. Which is why her post is unfair. It’s misinformed, it misleads people, people who follow her and emulate her, and it has the power to close minds. My hope here is to clear up the misinformation.

Reason #1 for NOT joining (or hiring!) a doula agency: “The guy at the top needs to pay his bills – you (the client) are a means to an end for the bill paying.” First, I’m confused. Are agency owners the only ones who need to pay their bills? (You don’t need to pay your bills?) Don’t all doulas need to pay their bills, agency or non-agency….? Of course we don’t see our clients as just a means to an end – my goodness, when I drop everything to give up a Friday night responding to a client in a crisis (like, actual life-or-death crisis) and scramble to find her a doula who will then go home, pump her own breast milk for her baby, and get on the road for an overnight shift away from her four little ones … you better believe we are not seeing that client as a means to an end. When a client with a history of depressioncalls us to figure out whether she can bring in overnight help to get much needed sleep for her vulnerable brain, but somehow also preserve the breastfeeding relationship…we are most certainly not thinking of her as a means to an end. When I serve a single mom who just needs another set of eyes, ears, hands.. to pinpoint baby’s fussiness, brainstorm healthy post-pregnancy meals, get her her one break from baby in a 24-48 hour period… Yes I was glad to be making money. I was also infinitely grateful to be able to serve. We are not looking at our clients as a means to an end. We are thinking how lucky we are to be able to do important work, make a real difference in the lives of so many people, and be able to pay our bills! Name me something that’s wrong with that.

Reason #2 for NOT joining a doula agency: “The […] worker is disposable and dispensable. There cannot be loyalty for the worker at the bottom when the real story is ‘I need to make more than you (who has all the skill and training), in order to even have a business.’” The author implies here and elsewhere in the post that someone at the top makes the good money while the service providers do not. Responses by readers of her thread also imply that the clients are being “taxed” for using an agency, having to pay fees to a middle man. Instead, our clients – and those of most agencies I know – simply pay an hourly rate to us just as they would to a private doula. No additional fees. The rate is the same rate as many private doulas charge. It is a little higher than others charge, so it is admittedly on the high end of the range. Many families are willing to pay a few dollars more per hour knowing that it is providing them with an extra layer of service – a guarantee of backup doulas, a streamlined and convenient interview process with doulas who have already been vetted by the director, a go-between (the director) if something is not meeting their expectations or they need to make a change. Not to mention a guarantee of liability insurance and CPR certification.

Our doulas get the higher percentage of this hourly rate, and the rest goes to pay the expenses of the agency (materials, insurance, legal and accounting fees, equipment…) and to pay for my time as director. This saves the doulas on theirexpenses, and it saves them the time spent on many related tasks. Therefore, they’re willing to make “less” per hour, because they recognize that if they calculated all of the hours spent on the business end that no one is actually paying them for, they’re not actually making much less per hour doing agency doula work. They also calculate that there are intangible benefits like camaraderie, feedback, mentoring, continuing ed, peace of mind if they need to cancel on a client, opportunities to shadow and gain experience. In contrast to what the author proports, my doulas and I do believe we are all helping each other succeed.

So… as opposed to the authors assumption about the “real story,” couldn’t the “real story” be “I need to be compensated for my time – just like you do”?Couldn’t the “real story” be “I have some of the skills and you have others – I’ll do what I do (say the outreach, marketing, billing, intake, scheduling), taking that off your plate so you can do what you do (care for families, provide nonjudgemental support, tend to the health and wellness of a mother and baby?). And how about – crazy idea here – I’ll get paid for what I do while you get paid for what you do?

Reason #3 for NOT joining a doula agency: “Why would I want to be dependent on someone else for all of my income?” Well first, if you’re a doula, just like in a lot of occupations, you ARE dependent on someone else for all of your income – your clients. That’s not different in the agency model. Maybe there’s a misconception, that you only get clients if your agency sends you clients? That’s not true in most doula agencies, where the doulas are independent contractors and can still take on their own private clients – or pursue work in lactation consulting, placenta encapsulation, childbirth education, etc. My doulas often get additional work in these specialty areas because of clients I send to them.

Reason #4 for NOT joining a doula agency: “I don’t want a boss governing how I spend time with my families or what I can and cannot do.” Again, it sounds to me like this comes from a misconception. If you are an independent contractor, the agency owner cannot govern – or even instruct – how you serve your clients and what you can and cannot do. It is incumbent upon the agency owner to select doulas he/she feels operate in a way that is consistent with the agency’s vision and values. He/she can provide opportunities for continuing education, for peer support and mentoring… But you are an independent contractor. You do you. You doula how you doula. In fact, as an agency owner I like to have doulas with a diverse range of styles, personalities, and experiences. It helps me provide my families with the opportunity to select a doula who feels like the right fit for their family. It is not a “person to job” mentality as the post’s author implies. I figure out who is available, figure out who meets the family’s needs (do they need someone 100% comfortable working with lgbt families? Someone with extra lactation education because of breastfeeding issues? Someone who can help a sibling with special needs transition to life with a new baby?) Then, I send a few of these doulas to their home to meet with them, interview, make sure it’s a good fit. Deciding who you will have in your home for hours on end is a very personal decision. The author should be careful when she assumes that “no one cares if the match is right.”

Reason #5 for NOT joining a doula agency: “Doulas are independent women who are smart and strong – I feel we are capable of building our own businesses.”Agreed. But if doulas are smart and strong, one would think they would be very capable of making their own decisions of what kind of business to build. One would think they would be able to decide what’s the best use of their energy and strengths.

There are all kinds of artists and service providers who are amazing at their craft, who hope to make it a livelihood, but for whom networking, marketing, planning, billing, selling,.. suck away their energy, take away their inspiration, bog them down. Yes, we can be capable of building our own business but also not want to. Not everyone does. Some people just want to show up and serve. Others still consider themselves to be building their own business with agency work as one component of it.

In closing, I hope I have cleared up any misunderstandings about agencies.Ultimately, the values of any type of organization – agency, corporation, church group, team – come down to it’s leadership and it’s people. The author of the original post has clearly, as she explains, had disappointing and upsetting experiences with agencies whose vision and values were not held up by their leadership. That is a shame. It is not a reason to draw broad conclusions about agencies in entirely distinct practice areas, and with entirely different structures. It is not a reason to spew unconfirmed assumptions and badmouth good people.

For more on how the agency model can actually add value for doulas and families,read here: http://www.onemoondoula.com/blog/the-three-actually-four-reasons-im-opening-a-doula-agency

Kathryn Keener5 Reasons NOT to Join a Doula Agency

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