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Nonprofit Salaries

Here is an article from our friend Vu at Nonprofit: Always Fresh http://nonprofitaf.com/ that delves into the salary issue.

Last month, one of my friends told me she was making 70K as a waitress at a fancy restaurant. She quit because she didn’t find it satisfying, and took a pay cut to work as a community organizer. I wept softly into my soy hot chocolate. 70K was way more than I was making as an ED with rapidly greying hair and daily night terrors.

Most of us who entered the nonprofit field didn’t do so because of the Benjamins. We knew, when we decided to dedicate our lives to making the world better, that we would not likely be able to afford a huge house with a pool. Or trips abroad every year. Or private school for our kids. Or maybe healthcare. Or organic blueberries at $6 per pint. Gawd, that’s like fifty cents a berry! Seriously, are organic blueberries watered with unicorn tears?!

Sorry, where was I? Yes, we knew what we were getting into. There are tons of reasons why nonprofit work is so awesome (See “10 reasons nonprofit work is so awesome”), and not one of those is a huge pay. Unless you include unlimited hummus at meetings as part of wages.

However, it’s gotten ridiculous, and too many nonprofits just suck at determining salaries and paying their staff fairly. We’ve developed some no good, very bad habits. A friend told me, for example, that she had asked for a raise at her org, where she was well respected and kicking serious ass at her work. She was denied. This and other reasons led her to resign. They begged her, unsuccessfully, to stay. The organization then released a job posting and set the pay rate to be higher than what she had asked for, rationalizing that few good candidates would apply for the job at the current salary level. WTF.

Of course, sucking at paying decent wages is not entirely our fault. We are dealing with historical and societal norms and restrictions. First, we have a funding structure where we are forced to Frankenstein different sources of revenues together and bind it all with prayer. And secondly, society has the wacky and damaging notion that nonprofit staff should martyr ourselves. It’s perfectly OK for celebrities, athletes, and CEOs of companies producing soft drinks or gory video games or yoga pants to be paid millions, but God forbid anyone pay a nonprofit professional 100K to help end homelessness or cancer or whatever.

Our sector is sustained by idealists who chose to do this work, who will work for much lower salaries than they could get elsewhere. Young people, especially, who for a while can exist with a small salary, subsisting on ramen and leftover water crackers from community events. I was there. It was kind of romantic, like being a starving artist or a small business owner who makes organic artisanal pickles. But then we do-gooders get older and start thinking about having a family. We start pining for things like a decent used car with brakes and mufflers that actually work.  

Our field loses too many talented staff because we are mired in this mentality of scrappiness (See “Nonprofits: We need to break out of the scrappiness cycle.”) It has led us to sit on crappy chairs that we find on Craigslist. Worse, it’s led us to undervalue and underinvest in the most critical factor in our quest for equity and social justice: The people who do this work each day.

Look, we’re not going to be able to compete with the corporate or government sector in terms of pay any time soon. But still, we need to break some horrible habits when it comes to paying the professionals in our field. Here are some things we need to do:

  • Stop relying on intuition to set salary levels: “Hm, let’s see, we may get this one grant, and it looks like Jupiter will be in Pisces soon. So let’s say, uh, $32,000 starting salary for this case manager.” Buy the wage and benefits survey for your area and look up the positions and the average salaries for an organization similar in size to yours. If you’re in the Pacific Northwest, the United Way of King County and Archbright have a pretty comprehensive survey, and it’s totally worth the $100 or so. 
  • Create a uniform set of rules for how your organization determines salaries and raises. You may need to consult with an expert in this area, but too many of us nonprofits have no rhyme or reason for how people get paid at entry or when and why they get raises. Whatever rules your org uses, apply them consistently.
  • Analyze your wage gaps for current positions. Once you have the survey, go through each position you have at your org, and use the averages from the wages and benefits survey to determine how underpaid each position is. Although many of us are underpaid, it is unfair when one person is way more underpaid than another person.
  • Develop and prioritize a plan to bring salaries up to industry averages. It may take a while, maybe several years, before our organizations, especially the small ones, achieve pay parity with the field, but we’ll never get there if there’s no plan. Set a target like “We will reach 25th percentile industry pay averages for all staff in three years and 50th percentile by five years.” Or whatever. Have a goal. Put it into your strategic plan.
  • Do the Staff Awesomeness and Pay (SAP) test: EDs and other high-level directors, ask yourself these questions about each of your staff: Is [John] pretty awesome at his job? If so, if he quits right now, could we get someone equally as awesome as John for what he’s currently getting paid? If yes, great; go have a beer. If the answer is no, figure out a plan to raise John’s salary! It’s annoying and insulting when an amazing staff leaves and you bring in a newbie who starts at a higher salary even though it’ll take a lot of time to train this staff to be at the same level of effectiveness as the one who just left. (If John is NOT awesome, you need to have a serious talk with him). 
  • Boards, assess the ED’s salary annually. Many EDs don’t like to bring up our own salaries for a couple of reasons. First, we know our staff are underpaid, so it seems self-serving to ask for a raise. Second, there’s the ED’s Pay Dilemma: EDs are in charge of fundraising, so any pay increase in our salaries means we have to work harder to raise those funds, as well as funds to also get our staff’s salaries up, since we feel bad about getting a raise if our team don’t. We are already working a lot, so many of us would just rather keep our current salary and not have to work even more. As the board, it’s your responsibility to make sure the ED is fairly compensated. Review the ED’s performance each year, and do the SAP test above for your ED.
  • Beef up the benefits: We might not get paid a lot relatively, but many of us love the work because of stuff like flexible work hours, additional vacation time, etc. One org I know closes the office early each Friday during the summer so staff could spend time with their family. That’s pretty cool.

Dedicated, passionate staff are the most important element of our work. Whereas professionals from many other jobs could be replaced by robots in the future, nonprofit staff, due to the nature of our work, will never be. So let’s suck less at paying them more. 

Vu Le, http://nonprofitaf.com/

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