Sunday, June 10, 2012

When There Is No More Fee

An architectural firm designed a project according to program and budget of an institutional client. The client, though, had a hard time raising all of the funds needed for the project and so asked the firm either to redesign the project to reduce its size or help fundraise for the project to reach the original budget, all without any extra fee to cover the time involved.

Professionals have a duty to serve their clients and to help them achieve their goals within the quantitative, qualitative, and financial constraints of a project. And with that duty comes another one: letting clients know that they must often chose between two of those three constraints. Unless a client has the rare gift of modesty with ample means, most projects have to sacrifice the quantity of some things, reduce the quality of some features, or increase the amount of money in the budget. In design, as in life, we can rarely have it all, and the sooner that conversation takes place in a project, the better it goes.

If it doesn’t occur or if the client doesn’t listen when it does, situations like the one here can happen. Architects can design a building according to the quantitative and qualitative requirements and the financial capacity of the client, but if the funding for a project doesn’t come in as expected, something must give. Either the project gets redesigned to reduce costs or the participants in the project must raise the money needed to complete it as initially conceived.

Of course, at this point, the fees to do this extra work often don’t exist, given the deficit the client already faces. So professionals have to make a decision: put the project on hold until the client can raise more money to build it as designed or help the client either do that fundraising or reduce the expense of the building to fit within the money available. That decision demands weighing two types of duty: to others and to ourselves. Professionals have a duty to their clients, but they also have a responsibility to their colleagues, co-workers, and ultimately to their businesses. It does no good for a practitioner to go out of business donating too much time to help other’s business.

The firm in this example might decide to keep working on the project without pay if the client seems likely to raise more money in the future and recompense the office for its extra work, or if the effort seems likely to lead to future work from that client or others. Some projects become “loss leaders,” generating new projects that can more than compensate for the earlier loss. And some clients have connections and reputations that can make their recommendations to future clients especially valuable.   
The dutiful decision also may turn on the nature of the client’s business. If a business has plenty of financial capacity and yet asks a firm to do work for free, the donation of time can quickly become a form of exploitation by the client, and the professional must say no. We all have a duty to stop exploitation, whether of ourselves or of others. But if, as in this case, the client is a non-profit without the money to move forward, the donation of services and the offering of help to raise money for the project become ways of giving back to a community and of paying forward the help others have given us. We all have a duty as citizens, and donating time and money in such cases always pays personal dividends.