Jonathan Foust

August 25, 2008

Why I Don’t Charge a Set Fee for Evening Classes

Filed under: Dharma, Meditation — jonathanfoust @ 3:16 pm


Outdoor Yoga Class During a Weeklong Retreat

Outdoor Yoga Class During a Weeklong Retreat

Much the time I teach by donation.  No set fee.

In the Buddhist tradition, teachings are offered in the spirit of generosity or dana.  

The precept behind this is that the teachings of liberation are priceless … so there can be no charge for them.  Everything is offered in a spirit of generosity … and generosity is encouraged by the participants.

I love it.  And sometimes it freaks me out.

A Change in Perception

For well over a decade I was a member of a vowed order.   $28.00 a month (until we got a raise to $35.00).  

I loved the lifestyle. While I had no cash, I felt secure in a community and mission dedicated to creating a more conscious and compassionate world.

Years later I was part of rebuilding the ashram into a more non-sectarian program center.  One of my tasks was to oversee the curriculum.  It was a fascinating job … constantly looking for what was up and coming in the consciousness of the culture, trying to land a famous presenter or identify a teacher on the rise.

I’d always admired Bo Lozoff.  He is the founder of the Ashram Prison Project and author of “We’re All Doing Time,” the classic book on bringing liberation techniques into prisons.  I approached him about coming to a conference I was directing called “Change Yourself, Change the World.”  I’d already signed on Arun Gandhi, the grandson of Mahatma Gandhi, Julia Butterfly Hill, the protester who lived for over a year in a redwood, defending it against loggers, Wayne Muller, author of Bread for the Journey.  Bo could round out the field for what I hoped would be a transformational weekend inquiry.

When I talked to Bo he said, “I’ll consider it, but I’m going to screw up your system.  I’ll only do it if it’s by donation and open to anyone who wants to come.”

This was a major problem for me.  The center was not at all set up to do that.  At our core, we relied on a business model based on fees, tuition and standard accounting practices.

Bo talked to me about the principle of ‘dana,’ offering teachings with no restriction.  He told me stories of how in his ashram their financial needs would get magically met by trusting deeper and deeper in the spirit of generosity.  Expenses would arise, there wouldn’t be enough funds – and after a retreat or a talk, there might be a $100 bill or a check for $3000.00.

Bo ended up deciding to take a year of silence and we didn’t have to figure out how to jigger our accounting practices, but our conversation lingered in my thoughts.

The idea thrilled and terrified me.

I was living a vow of simplicity, but I was at the same time living in what I recognize now as a middle class ashram.  We were pretty darned comfy with great food, a clothing allowance, health care and vacations.


I wasn’t sure I could stand being that ‘naked’ … offering teachings and experiences with no guarantee of compensation or financial security.

One day I read where Buddha once said, “If you knew what I know about generosity and karma, you would never hold back on giving.”

I resolved one day to try to live this way.

Fast forward to Washington, DC.  I left the community I’d lived in for 25 years, fell in love with a woman who happened to be a Buddhist teacher and got immersed deeper into the Buddha dharma.  

I led yoga twice a day at an Insight Meditation Community of Washington week-long vipassana retreat.  A few weeks afterward I got a check – donations from participants.

I was thrilled …. I had forgotten all about ‘getting paid’ and the check felt like a gift.   

In the fall I offered my first weekly class – Tuesday Night Movement and Meditation at the Carderock Swim Club. 

I was pretty freaked.  I wasn’t well known here and the rent was $75.00.  Was I going to lose money offering this?

The class started pretty small but I managed to cover the rent.   As the class grew, so did the donations.  

I would make more money charging a set fee or merchandising blocks of classes, but there is something so clean and satisfying about offering a drop-in class open to all.  


Here are three reasons why I practice dana:


1.  No one is ever denied access to the teachings and the practices.

This enlivens me the most.   I know some people who come have little money.  I feel great knowing that they are as welcome as someone who can easily offer a generous donation.

One evening a group of what I think were high school students showed up for class.  It was pretty clear they hadn’t done any yoga, relaxation or meditation before.

I remembered my first yoga class when I was in high school.  That class changed my life and shaped my life’s direction.   As I led the class through movement, deep relaxation, the half-hour meditation and short talk, they were in my heart and thoughts.

At the end of the evening I could tell something had shifted for them.

I imagine paying $15 or $20 for that experience would have blocked them from coming.  Who knows if they dropped any offering in the basket, but having them there, so open and present, built my resolve to keep the gate wide open.

As I added up the donations the next morning I felt like all of us had provided that experience for them.


2.  I get to unhook from ‘performing.’

I’m committed to bringing the moment as alive as I can in my life and my classes. 

Offering an experience from a spirit of generosity means I’m unhooked from performing.  There’s nothing about ‘giving people their money’s worth.’  I’m free to share from the radiance of my own discovery and be exactly who I am.

This doesn’t mean I don’t care what people think of me or that I don’t want to be liked … but what a radical relief to let go of the anxiety that goes with performing.


3.  We all get to explore what it means to be generous.

The Buddha once said that when we practice generosity we get three benefits:

First, we get the experience of reflecting on generosity.  At the end of a class or a retreat, I’m searching for a sense of what feels appropriate – what feels right inside.  Too little feels like I’m being stingy.  Too much feels like I’m being irresponsible.  I try to find an amount that resonates with a spirit of generosity and well-being.

Second, we get the experience of generosity itself.  When I give freely of my resources, I drop the sense of ‘I’ and ‘mine.’  I feel connected.

Third, we get to look back and reflect on how generous we were.  When we review our life, the moments where we were kind and generous bring about a feeling of expansion and well-being.


+  +  +  +  +  +


There is a big debate in the Buddhist community about the practicalities of offering teachings by donation in this culture.  

There are those who say that in these troubled times, those who wish to teach and serve should be fairly compensated. To charge for our time allows us a level of security that is totally reasonable and appropriate.

I’ve kind of landed in a hybrid system.  Some teaching and services I offer are by fee, which helps guarantee me some stable income.

Like many people trying to teach and serve from a spirit of dana, I’m finding life in this culture incredibly expensive.  I hope that I can continue to serve in this way because it opens my heart and challenges my fears of lack.


Thank you for your ongoing generosity to me and my fellow teachers and thank you for your willingness to explore that which cannot be measured.


1 Comment »

  1. This is a great, practical and useful post, Jonathan. I have considered this approach for years; now I am ready to implement it.

    Some people have prevented themselves from participating in my executive coaching for fear of not getting a return on their payment. In contrast, clients have reported huge results, even monetary outcomes that dwarf what I charge in a year.

    I get tired of trying to help people with no useful context, no personal of experience with coaching, justify paying my fees. My clients are happy and stay for years, but the conversation with new prospects is often unsatisfying.

    Attending your class last week inspired me to make the leap and offer an executive coaching group experience in the same drop-in, give what you wish weekly format. The first session is on October 1!

    We’ll see.

    Comment by Tony Mayo — September 14, 2009 @ 5:05 pm

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