By Elizabeth Schuster, Environmental Economist. This blog was inspired by conversations with the Civic Consulting Collaborative. All individuals quoted by name in this article are members of the CCC.


Compensating individuals for participating in research and planning can seem like a no brainer – but it can be overwhelming when you don’t have the right tools to understand when it matters the most. As an environmental economist by training, my field is founded on the idea that we have limited, scarce resources. Organizations don’t have infinite budgets and will need to be thoughtful as they consider who they pay – and how much.

Organizations must balance budgetary considerations with a real need to increase access to a wider diversity of individuals, creating processes where you can hear the voices from previously underrepresented groups as well.

Why this matters

This section brings light to the complexity of the issue. It is misguided to hastily make sweeping generalizations that “We always need to pay all participants in all activities.” There can be conflicts of interest and/or unspoken pressures to change behavior when payments are involved. There is currently no comprehensive framework that exists to guide us around when and how much to compensate participants in both research and community planning activities.

Considerable research has been done on the ethics around compensating participants in research. Not only are there numerous studies on this but also entire laws and policies that govern the ethics of human subjects research, often overseen by institutional review boards (IRBs).

The issue can get complicated quickly, especially in clinical research. This publication synthesizes a specific set of ethical considerations, noting, “Offers of payment made to research participants have been described as ‘one of the more contentious ethical problems’ facing IRBs.” In certain cases, payments for participation have resulted in coercion to participate, though the authors stress that this is debated and there is a lack of clear definitions and guidance.

Plus, a case made the news where a City in British Columbia, CA paid participants to participate in an approval process for a permit, asking them to speak favorably about the permit. In this case, the City had to rescind the previously approved permit due to the “tainted process.”

Moreover, there is ongoing debate on the recommended payment structure to fully compensate participants for their costs. These examples are included simply to remind organizations of the need to be thoughtful in discussions around compensation to participants.

Photo 1. An example of flip charts from a community focus group.

The challenge

Not all participation in research or planning meetings is equal in terms of effort and risk. Here’s a simple comparison to illustrate the point.

  • A municipality has decided to demolish a historic building in a neighborhood. The City posts a notice about an open house. Community members can drop into the open house anytime during a 4-hour window to learn about the process and provide feedback. This is a low burden, low risk situation.
  • Second, imagine a team of planners who wants to better understand the challenges around homelessness and poverty in their community. They organize a series of focus groups where they plan to ask in-depth questions to unhoused individuals. This is a higher burden, slightly higher risk situation.

Further complicating the issue is that communities rely on a robust civic infrastructure based upon volunteerism. One report found, “Volunteering helps build a more cohesive, safer, stronger community, increase the social network between communities and neighborhood.”  Many individuals have an intrinsic motivation to volunteer, either based upon their system of values, or in some cases due to the intangible benefits received such as an expanded social network.

Social Scientist Leander Lacy shared in a recent conversation that some of the individuals with whom he works will say that for their dignity, they do not want to be paid a stipend for volunteering their time – but Lacy stresses, what matters here is that the volunteer has some level of choice. A system that requires that all volunteers be compensated at all times takes the choice away from those individuals. And communities without cultures of volunteerism often struggle more than communities with active volunteer networks.

12 questions – and guidance – around compensating participants

Not all engagement is the same and we need a set of questions and guidance to help us prioritize scarce resources. It is a reality that not all nonprofits, government entities, and other groups – especially very small organizations – will have the resources needed to adequately compensate volunteers who participate in their planning and research activities.

Having a set of questions and guidance will help increase the equity around how we compensate participants, as we gradually move towards a culture and expectation that more individuals are able to be compensated for their time and ideas.

  1. Are you asking for proprietary information to inform your research?

In my experience, it’s fairly standard that if you doing a research project and are asking for in-depth information on a person’s business, finances, or personal circumstances, you should be including participant stipends in the budget.

  1. Are you asking for feedback and expertise on sensitive information, from previously underrepresented groups?

If your organization is asking for previously underrepresented or excluded groups to share and/or educate about their past experiences of racism and discrimination, it is expected that you pay    these individuals for their knowledge and time.

  1. Is the request for participation going to be extractive, only benefiting the entity making the request?

If the activity (e.g., interview, focus group) is only for the benefit of the business or organization, then it is considered more equitable to offer some form of compensation to the participant.

  1. Is the participant benefiting from the interaction?

This is a gray area. If the participant chooses to participate because they believe they will benefit from the interaction – because they will then benefit from the service or the program or the plan that is developed – the participant might not need to be compensated.

  1. How much should participants be paid for their time?

Payment is usually based upon the amount of time spent at an hourly rate multiplied by the total time spent.

  1. What about a forum or open house?

According to Facilitator Meagan Picard: “This one is tricky. If completely open, like an open house, consider just offering food and beverages and a small gift that is appropriate to your project. However, if it is a more structured event that you anticipate people will stay the entire time, you can plan to pay people an hourly rate as referenced above. For accountability purposes, consider having people check in at the beginning of the meeting in order to be eligible for pay then providing cash to individuals as they sign out at the end.”

  1. Do people need to be compensated for taking surveys?

For longer surveys, we do typically pay participants for their time (based upon the expected amount of time to take the survey). However, there is a gray area with very short surveys. Many organizations will put names into a drawing for a gift card.

  1. What about youth? Do they need to be paid too?

According to Dr. Asia Lyons, an expert in equity-centered design and youth programming – yes! It is considered more equitable to pay youth for their time and ideas as they contribute their knowledge to community planning and research.

  1. What if the participant is being paid by their employer for participating in a work group or planning meeting?

This is also a gray area. In many cases, if a participant is already being paid by an employer to attend the meeting, they do not need to be compensated for their time. However, there are exceptions. Refer to the following question.

  1. What if the participant is representing a community-driven or grassroots organization?

In some cases, a stipend is still recommended to increase access for previously underrepresented groups and community-driven organizations. Community Psychologist and Facilitator Amy Engelman noted in an email:

  • “If you’re hoping for community organizations (more grassroots), then I think additional compensation is necessary whether it goes to the person directly or the organization because time as a resource is limited, particularly for grant funded organizations with limited capacity. Also, I think that if the convening group depends on community input for success, not just box checking, then they need to honor community expertise and compensation is probably the most tangible and immediate way to do that.”
  1. Is monetary compensation the only way to compensate participants?

No! In fact, Dr. Lyons added, “Stipends can impact government assistance so it’s important to ask (participants) what other compensation options they would consider.” This ensures that the stipends do not unintentionally have a negative impact on eligibility for benefits. For instance, compensation in the form of gift items may be preferred. In other cases, making participation more accessible through providing transportation and childcare can often make the difference of whether or not someone can participate.

  1. Does the participant want to volunteer their time?

If yes, participants can choose to volunteer and forego compensation. Or another option is to give the participant the choice to donate their stipend to a nonprofit organization.

Because a common standard for paying stakeholders for involvement in planning and research does not yet exist, we can use these questions to help guide us in the evolution of participant compensation to get equitable, inclusive results. The hope is that over time, we will compensate more individuals fairly for their time while reducing bias.