Guest Post: Sliding Scale 2.0 – No One Left Out

By Josh Van Vliet, Director of Community, Academy for Coaching Excellence

1000px-Emblem-scales.svgI recently read a guest blog post by Peter Rubin about Privilege-Based Pricing here on the Marketing for Hippies blog (if you didn’t see it, it’s great – go check it out here). In it, Peter shares about this interesting and innovative way that businesses can help address social inequality through pricing structure.

Reading this, I got really excited, because at the Academy for Coaching Excellence, my teammates and I have thought a lot about this too.

At the heart of it, our work is about building a community, a world, where everyone is supported 100% and no one is left out.

Our contribution to that vision is to provide coaching and coaching skills training to people, so they can bring clarity, focus, ease, and grace to their own life, and empower others to do that as leaders or professional coaches. We offer programs for personal and professional leadership development, as well as for professional coaching certification.

In these times of widening inequality and deep uncertainty, we as a business saw that we have a critical opportunity to be a leader in our profession and our society.

So we’ve been asking ourselves:

How do we price our services to reflect our stand for creating a world where everyone is supported 100%, and no one is left out?

Given the fact that different people have different access to resources, often due to factors outside of their control (such as class, race, socioeconomic status, ability, and gender), how do we include everyone, as much as possible?

. . . And run a sustainable, profitable business at the same time?

Enter the sliding scale.

So how did you arrive at this sliding scale?

We started by creating a scholarship fund.

It helped, but it took a lot of energy to run, because it relied on us ultimately making a judgment about how much scholarship to offer someone.

On top of that, the application was enough of a barrier to entry that some people wouldn’t bother applying, or felt like they didn’t “deserve” a scholarship.

We also offered folks resources, coaching, and guidance on how to successfully crowdfund some or all of their tuition for the course.

We’ve supported people to collectively raise over $50,000 to cover course tuition, travel, and other costs, and it’s helped make it possible for many people to attend who wouldn’t otherwise have been able to attend.

And, we know that this is only part of the equation.

So we looked around to see what other people are doing, and discovered a few different organizations using a tiered sliding scale approach (like the Rockwood Leadership Institute).

How does your sliding scale work?

Here’s how we describe it on our website:

We stand for a world where everyone is supported 100% and no one is left out, and our pricing reflects that vision. Our sliding scale empowers people to participate who could not otherwise do so, and enables us to offer our life-changing work where it can do the greatest good.

We use an honour system, and don’t require you to disclose your income. We also honour that both expenses and income factor into your situation, so we ask that you discern the price truly right for you — whether that is below or above your suggested tier.

So that our work serves those who could not otherwise afford it, please invest the amount that is a “stretch” but not a hardship, factoring in your access to outside support (i.e. family and/or fundraising). Referring to the scale below, ask yourself:

  1. What investment level would be comfortable for me?
  2. What level would be a “stretch” but not a hardship — truthfully factoring in my access to outside support?
  3. Am I willing to register at that level?

This is an example of our sliding scale, for the Thriving Changemaker Intensive, our foundational 4-day course:

Gross Annual

Household Income

. . . OR Organizational Budget

(if your organization funds you)



$90,000+ $10,000,000+ $3,000
$70,000 – $89,999 $4,000,000 – $9,999,999 $2,500
$50,000 – $69,999 $1,000,000 – $3,999,999 $2,000
$25,000 – $49,999 $0 – $999,999 $1,500
$0 – $24,999 Not available $1,000

What’s the response been so far?

Virtually entirely and overwhelmingly very positive. To give you a sense of what we’ve heard, here’s what one person wrote to us in response:

“This helps tremendously – financially, psychologically, spiritually – and actually brought tears to my eyes. Your decision to do this feels within me like a synching in alignment with my intentions and values. Thank you for being the change for social change with your sliding scale offer for The Thriving Changemaker Intensive.”

I think the only issue so far has been that it makes registration a bit more involved, especially for someone who has never experienced a sliding scale like this before.

A big part of the work for us has been to refine the way we communicate this approach, so that it’s as simple and clear as possible.

And, on the other hand, it has made “the money conversation” infinitely more simple, because people understand that A) this is an incredibly valuable program we offer, and B) they are empowered to simply pay at the level that is authentic and appropriate to their situation.

Won’t people just pay the lowest price?

It turns out they don’t. We’ve had people register at every tier — including those who pay at the highest tiers and tell us that they are truly glad to do so, because they are so aligned with our mission of inclusion and accessibility.

What have you learned about effective sliding scales?

In order to make a sliding scale work, you must:

  • Effectively communicate the value of the offering. A sliding scale sometimes becomes a way to handle the worry “no one is going to pay me for this” (of course, I NEVER did this in my private coaching practice when I was getting started…wink wink). If you’re not enrolled in the value you are going to get from whatever the service or program is, it makes sense that you wouldn’t pay a whole lot for it.
  • Effectively communicate your values. If you share why you’re doing it, and how their choice impacts others, it takes it out of the context of “let me get the best deal” and puts in the context of being a part of a community. It gives meaning to what they are paying, beyond a simple exchange of money for services.
  • Give people a clear and simple way to decide what to pay. When we’re confused, we don’t take action. If you have no idea how to choose what to pay for something, you’re more likely to either a) not sign up, or b) pay whatever’s easiest, which will be related to whatever reference points you’ve got, such as the low end of a sliding scale (or whatever you make up, if you have don’t have any reference point).

How is it fair to “force” some people to pay more than others?

The tiers we offer are simply a suggestion. We ask that each person see for themselves what the authentic rate is. We know that there are more factors than just annual income that determine a person’s ability to pay. The truth is, there’s no way we could determine the authentic price tier for someone. What we can do is give people some simple guidelines for how to make their choice, and empower them to do it.

What have you learned?

Trust people.  One of the principles of our work is that people have their own answers. They really do know what’s authentic for them to pay, what’s aligned with who they are, and what they value. And when you give them the choice, plus the context in which they are making that choice, they will generally choose to pay what they can authentically afford.

An appropriately-priced sliding scale helps flatten the “money conversation.” One of the biggest worries people have when considering joining a course or program is “I don’t have the money.” And for some, that may truly still be the case. We know this system isn’t perfect, and there are some people for whom even our lowest tier is out of reach. But for many, the conversation becomes instead: Is this the right thing for me right now? And if they see that it is, money is much less of a concern. Indeed, some people have been very happy to pay more, knowing that it helps others attend who otherwise wouldn’t be able to.

It looks like pricing inclusivity is good for business. Over the short time we’ve been experimenting with this (six months now), we’ve increased the number of people we’re serving, AND we’ve seen a slight increase in the average price paid per participant. Time will tell if this continues to hold true, but we’ve been thrilled with the results and the response so far.

How can people learn more about your work?

Visit our website:, where you can find free resources, like our online training Hope in Action: Find Your Center and Empower Your Purpose in Times of Trouble, and learn more about the Thriving Changemaker Intensive, our foundational in-person course in Sacramento, California.

JoshVanVlietJosh Van Vliet leads the creation, implementation, and evaluation of programs at the Academy for Coaching Excellence. He is a professional coach, dancer, teacher, and musician, as well as social entrepreneurship coach, and trainer for Move The Crowd. Josh has taught swing and blues dancing; worked as a case manager with Gilead Community Services supporting clients with mental illness to live independently; and led movement classes for kids in schools through Recess Rocks.

  • Super awesome article. Inspired by your work (Tad), I made my online meditation courses a “Pay what you can offer” for about 3-years. I unfortunately didn’t have the “slight increase in sales” due to the change of making my $100-200 courses available at the sliding scale rate. Perhaps I could have explained the value better or done what Josh did with stating the various incomes-to-prices. That’s a great idea! The great thing is that I had thousands of people from 40+ countries go through my online courses and that has opened up many amazing doors and business opportunities I couldn’t have received otherwise. I guess that’s just good karma.

    I’m no longer offering those courses online, instead I have a simple meditation library with all my track available. However, I have kept my prices incredibly low/accessible for people. For that, I have been thanked many times.

    I also believe accessibility is going to be a KEY to success, impact and reaching many rather than few in the coming years (with regards to our online offerings).

    As you know as well with our work at the Great eCourse Adventure. We are trying creative ways to make that more accessible to our audience as well.

    I hope this article inspires people to get more creative with pricing.

    It doesn’t have to be the way it’s always been :-D

    Also: I tried to go to Josh’s website, but the link didn’t seem to work. Do you have another URL for him?

    Thanks for sharing this Tad.

  • Ria Baeck

    I – and we, in the Art of Hosting global network – have been playing with what we call the Shared Economy model. Here is a video:
    and the original write up, in our first experiment with it.

    So far, it has worked out great. The biggest practice is that trainers, facilitators need to be very clear on how much they want to get out of the event – training!

  • Hey there! Here’s the url: Seems to be working for us today … not sure! Internet mysteries!

  • Josh Van Vliet

    Hi Bradley, thanks for your thoughtful response! I love hearing how other folks are approaching this issue.

    Our website was down for a little while last night because of an issue with our website host, but it’s back up now, and the link above should work.

  • Josh Van Vliet

    Thanks for sharing, Ria!

  • JenniferSummerfeldt

    Excellent topic. In fact, I just created a document for my clients. After working/interning for a NFP, I see the value of sliding scale access to counselling. That said, I also see some of the downfalls too. I am an entrepreneur at heart, and so I decided that it would be best to continue to work for me, even though I love the values of NFP. Thus, I decided to continue to offer affordable counselling and that this is my mandate. All the while, trusting that I will earn a living. So far, this has been working well for both my clients and myself. I am toying with the idea of having a sliding scale sheet, but I like the idea of having a conversation with my clients and letting them decide. It is similar to PWYC model. Access to healing is so important to me, and my psychologist worked within my budget. I promised I would pass it forward – and now I can.

  • Thanks Josh. Super cool what you guys are up to.

    I’ve been in the online learning industry as my full time gig for a little over five years and I’m really really excited to be watching people stepping away from the mould with their pricing.

    I helped a client build an online fitness course a couple years ago and she originally sold it for $300. After mediocre success she changed the price to a sliding scale price ($10, 25, 40) and last year alone she sold more than 35,000 courses.

    I think a trend we’re going to see in the coming years is less hyped up, overpriced $1000-2000 courses and more courses that are high quality AND priced in a way that makes them available to a broader market, rather than the select few who have the Visa limit.

  • Margarat Nee

    I use sliding scale, and went through a couple of less-than-satisfactory iterations before I read this one:

    I’ve used their model (and thank them for it on my website) and have been really happy with the results.