Non-Profit Salaries: Who Determines The Value of an Employee?

I have worked in non-profit since graduating from college.  It wasn’t so bad when I was in my 20’s. I had no kids, no mortgage, no car payment and was still living at home.  Working for peanuts then wasn’t that big of a deal.  I convinced myself that it was for a greater good and so the low pay was a trade-off for the good feeling I got from “giving back.”

That changed when I got screwed. I was promised a raise for all my hard work if a specific grant was received because of the extra work implementing it would entail.  When the funds were awarded I got the extra duties, but not the promised pay increase.  Since the additional monies were written into the grant I did not think it would be a problem, when six months into working on the project I inquired about the raise.  To my shock not only I was told there wasn’t money for a raise but that I was being greedy for even asking about it.  When I reminded my boss that the additional money for the raise was written into the grant I received the following response. “You shouldn’t be in non-profit if you are trying to make money. No one should expect to get rich working for a non-profit.”

RICH! I wasn’t trying to get rich!  I just wanted the organization to honor its word.  No I wasn’t expecting silver and gold, but is it too much to ask to be able to make a decent living.  My expenses were growing as well as my job duties.  Why was I being made to feel guilty about asking for the decent and fair wage I was promised?

FAST FORWARD 20+ years and a vast amount of experience later and I am still hearing the same stupid statements.  They usually come out of the mouths of Executive Directors (incidentally the highest paid members of the non-profit staff,) or board members who can’t imagine a non-profit staff member earning as much as they do.

Who the (expletive in my head not typed ’cause I don’t want to offend any one-feel free to add your own though) made up this stupid rule?

When asked about their greatest staff retention challenges, the top two issues cited were “inability to pay competitively” (27 percent) and “inability to promote” (20 percent). Unfortunately, the use of the word “inability” only reinforces the impression that this is how the sector must operate. Organizations do have a choice in whether they prioritize staffing and retention, and ignoring these issues is already costing nonprofits money and impact.-ALLISON GAUSS 2016

Low salaries made sense in the early days when non-profits were founded by small religious groups who worked as the staff, or wives of wealthy tycoons.  As these organizations grew they had to hire staff to tend to the day to day affairs.  These days many non-profits are as large as big corporations and take in as much money.  They require more and more educated staff in order to operate, yet organizations still insist on dealing with human resources as if it is 1903.

Gauss also states that “The sector cannot attract and retain the talent it needs to solve huge social problems without investing in nonprofit salaries.” She references major league baseball teams who are willing to pay their standout talent millions of dollars in order to retain the best of the best.  They understand that the investment they make will reap them even greater rewards.

“BUT LENA-WE CAN’T PAY MILLIONS OF DOLLARS TO ONE EMPLOYEE.” I hear an Executive Director screaming.

Nor am I suggesting you should, but I am saying that by not investing in non-profit talent burnout is created, many of the best and brightest leave the non-profit world, or forego it altogether. As a result, you are losing out on major talent that can actually help your organization grow. It’s so bad that many adults are warning young people to avoid non-profit work altogether.

“BUT LENA-OUR DONORS WILL STOP GIVING IF OUR SALARIES ARE TOO HIGH.”

Maybe. Maybe not.  Most likely not.  Your donors work for a living.  They understand far more than they are given credit for.  CEO’s who run companies understand the importance of recruiting and retaining talent and the importance a good employee can bring to a bottom line.

BUT LENA, WE DON’T MAKE ANYTHING.  WE DON’T SELL ANYTHING!

Yes, you do.  1) You make people’s lives better. 2) You are selling yourself.  You are the product.  If the product is good people will buy it. But only if you have the right people in place to sell it.  Why are you not willing to pay the price to get the right “sales”people on your team?

I’m not the only one who thinks this.  More and more people are starting to rethink this whole “non profit employees should not worry about salary thing…”  That’s some straight up shiggity BS!  Don’t believe me.  Check out all the links below.

I love how Vu Le (“voo lay”) puts it down about this subject.  Vu Le is a writer, speaker, and Executive Director of Rainier Valley Corps, a nonprofit in Seattle with the mission of developing and supporting leaders of color. In his article for the blog Non-Profit With Balls, he states “…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 field loses too many talented staff because we are mired in this mentality of scrappiness

RIGHT! Well said Vu Le.

JONATHAN TIMM’s in his article for the Atlantic acknowledges the challenges that non-profits face with regard to funding their organizations, while at the same time confronting the notion that these challenges are an excuse to low ball employees in the area of wages.  In his article Timm’s cites  Stuart Mitchell, the CEO of a human-services nonprofit called PathStone, who wrote that “paying a livable wage is the right thing to do not only for our deeply committed employees, but also for the participants that rely on our services.”  He ends his article with this statement from the representatives of 150 social-justice organizations who, signed a letter in support of former President Obama’s overtime rules writing, “It is time to revisit the idea that working for the public good should somehow mean requiring the lowest-paid among us to support these efforts by working long hours, many of which are unpaid.

I have way more to say on this subject, but not enough time.  I will say that the smart non-profits.  The ones that really want to be competitive in the 21st century will be the ones that are willing to challenge this notion that their employees should not be paid a competitive wage in line with public and private sector wages. Non-profit employees work as hard, and in many cases harder than their for-profit counterparts.They deserve to be adequately compensated for their work.  They fight for good causes everyday.  It’s time someone fought for them.

Resources

Low Nonprofit Salaries Are Costing You Money. (n.d.). Retrieved March 04, 2017, from https://www.classy.org/blog/low-nonprofit-salaries-costing-you-money/

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