In our culture and economy, we place a value on the goods and services that we create or offer. Since others may not have the time or ability to create those goods or services themselves, we sell what we create to others in order to earn money. As we improve upon those goods and services, it becomes increasingly hard for others to replicate them, and thus the value increases. Similarly, as the demand for those goods and services increases, the value increases.
Unfortunately, the services offered by genealogists, including genetic genealogists, are severely undervalued in our culture. One of the most common explanations is that genealogy is a hobby and therefore subscriptions and research services are an unnecessary expense, and/or that people only use “disposable income” for genealogy. (Don’t say that outloud at a genealogy conference!).
Quilting, raising horses, and gardening are also usually just hobbies, or start out as hobbies. However, it isn’t acceptable to walk up to a quilter and ask for a free quilt, to approach a horse owner and ask for free horseback riding lessons, or find a gardener to ask for free vegetables. It is perfectly acceptable and ethical to request compensation for quilts, horseback riding lessons, and zucchini.
Charging for Genetic Genealogy Services
Every day I receive requests asking questions both short and long about genetic genealogy. That makes sense, since that is my specialty (although I’ve been a genealogist for much longer than I’ve been using DNA). I enjoy helping others, especially my friends, whom I can then turn to for assistance or questions in the future.
Sometimes, however, there is pushback when genealogists request compensation for their services. There is an air of expectation, perhaps, that because this is a hobby, we are all expected to help each other without compensation.
Indeed, we should be gladly helping each other discover our heritage. But at the same time, there’s a reason you ask others for help; they’ve developed a specialty or skill that you want. Once again, in our economy, we pay others for their skills because we either don’t have the time or ability to develop them ourselves.
This is a difficult post to write without sounding greedy (which is perhaps another symptom of the problem!). Although it is often unspoken, even among many genealogy professionals there is a hesitation to charge proper rates for services, and sometimes there can even be an “appraisal” (this is the nicest synonym for “judgment” I could find!) of those that do request higher rates. Indeed, the only reason I feel like I can write this post without being excoriated is that I have donated countless thousands of hours to my profession. Through my blog (with 500+ free blog posts), thousands of (free) email responses, and other outlets, I have helped many thousands of people understand genetic genealogy. At the same time, however, it is both ethical and right that I offer paid services that help DNA test-takers; I have a specialty that I have worked incredibly hard for more than a decade to develop, and there is an enormous demand for that specialty.
It is the dream of MANY people to become full-time genealogists, or full-time genetic genealogists. To quit their non-genealogy day job and do what they really love, to practice a finely-honed craft that they have spent decades perfecting and developing. But the current atmosphere of “free” or “cheap” makes that dream nearly impossible.
Supply vs. Demand
I wouldn’t walk up to CPAs and say “would you do my taxes for free please?” I also wouldn’t approach an attorney and say, “would you help me with this for $25/hour please?” The following table demonstrates that although professional genealogists are in very low supply despite very high demand (genealogy is reportedly one of the most common hobbies in the country), their rates remain very low:
|Average Hourly Rate
|# in the U.S.
|Prof. Genetic Genealogist
(These are extremely rough numbers pulled randomly and quickly from various sources; don’t quote me on these!).
So let’s say there are 100 people serving a population of more than 3 million test-takers (and I think that’s being extremely generous). There is a very large demand for DNA interpretation and application services, and an incredibly small supply, but hourly rates are still relatively low. There are clearly artificial forces keeping these rates down, and in part it is likely the low hourly rates in the genealogy field as a whole.
Maybe genealogists are their own worst enemy.
Pro Bono Services
At the same time, it is important to remember that every service professional must offer pro bono services to those in need. Whether it is tax services, legal services, research services, or any other service, professionals have an ethical duty to offer their specialized services to people that need them but cannot properly afford them.
Genealogists, I would argue, are among the most giving and caring people I know, and most offer an incredible number of pro bono hours every year.
Indeed, one of the biggest areas where pro bono services are offered is in the realm of adoption. Adoptees have search angels and other specialists are experts and yet offer their services to adoptees for free. It is important to consider, however, these two points: (1) it is perfectly ethical and acceptable to request compensation from adoptees for assisting them with their search. (see the postscript below for the amount argument). And (2) it is important to remember that although adoptees are offered free services, that does NOT mean that all genealogical services should similarly be free.
The genealogy community must be careful about
creating (it’s probably too late for this) fostering a general expectation of free or cheap services while still being sure to offer pro bono services. An expectation that all genealogy should be free or cheap devalues who we are and the highly specialized skills we have worked so hard to develop.
It is perfectly acceptable and ethical to charge decent hourly rates for genealogical services. Genealogists offer specialized services that, frankly, most people do not have the time, patience, or skill to develop.
The entire field and community will benefit when genealogical services are recognized as a service worthy of decent hourly rates.
P.S. – it goes without saying that a professional should charge a rate that is equivalent to their experience and education level, and with what they will be delivering to the client. But my argument is that ALL rates are too low, from beginner to expert. Attacking the hypothesis herein (i.e., that genealogists should charge more for their services) by asserting that some genealogists are not qualified to charge that much, or that you were burned once by a genealogist, is a strawman argument. You can make the same argument about CPAs and plumbers.