By Chris Talbot-Heindl, communications professional and perpetually underpaid nonprofit laborer
I understand that it may be a challenge, but I’m here to tell you, underpaying nonprofit workers isn’t a reality, but a series of choices …
“Financially, [working at a nonprofit] can’t work for a lot of people. And in fact, with a nonprofit our size — boy, you almost have to be in a committed relationship with somebody else with an income, because you’re not — it’s hard to support yourself on what we can pay people, in Denver.”
This was the moment my Executive Director (ED) finally admitted that what I was being paid wasn’t enough to support me. I was just one month shy of six years into my position at the organization, and she didn’t say this quote directly to me. She said it on a podcast that she was featured in as a nonprofit leader.
A better, more equitable, time to have voiced this would have been before I accepted the position, moved my spouse and cats to Denver, and before I found myself facing the financial consequences of her decisions to a) not to pay a livable wage, and b) not even disclose that it wasn’t something she saw as a possibility.
Just like GrantStation’s apology regarding the horrible idea for a webinar titled “Motivating Underpaid Staff,” this type of acknowledgment makes the situation sound like a fixed reality — that underpaying is a ‘reality’ in the nonprofit sector, and there’s no feasible way around that.
Underpaying in the nonprofit sector isn’t a ‘reality,’ it’s a choice
Rich, white leaders will never feel the consequences of these choices and rarely know what it’s like to live in poverty. As such, they need to stop thinking that they can contrive the solutions …
I understand that it may be a challenge, but I’m here to tell you, underpaying nonprofit workers isn’t a reality, but a series of choices made by (mostly rich, white) nonprofit leaders since the nonprofit sector was first thought into existence in 1867. These white leaders were also the ones who then alleged that undervaluing workers was an immutable fact of working in the nonprofit sector. (The epitome of saying, “I don’t make the rules,” after, in fact, making the rules.)
It’s 2022 and we already know that the nonprofit sector works best when it employs people who understand the causes and the communities being served. For most social issues nonprofits, that will mean BIPOC, LGBTIQA2+, disabled, and other minoritized employees.
We also know that in order for non-social issues nonprofits (like the environmental nonprofit I work at) to bring cultural competency and innovation to the problems they work to solve, they need workplace diversity as well. And like I covered in my first article, passion exploitation can damage marginalized employees’ long-term financial security because we don’t typically have the generational wealth to weather it.
Rich, white leaders will never feel the consequences of these choices and rarely know what it’s like to live in poverty. As such, they need to stop thinking that they can contrive the solutions (or attend a paid webinar titled “Motivating Underpaid Staff” from someone who, according to her LinkedIn profile, hasn’t done any nonprofit work — really — I looked) to this inequity.
They need to be listening to us, the underpaid workers and the minoritized workers, for what we need.
My ED continued the interview on the podcast by admitting that she found the fact that we aren’t paid a livable wage embarrassing, and when she finds a way around our low pay, “That will not be the situation at our organization.”
Well, lucky for her, I have some concrete ways that she (and all the organizations that are currently paying substandard wages) can pay a living wage today! (Or at the very least create spaciousness for employees to make a living wage.)
But first, I want to discuss what not to do. Complete with real-life examples rich, white leaderships have devised during my 20 years in the nonprofit sector.
Pizza parties, discounts, and becoming my landlord are not solutions to small paychecks
The reason that I say that the rich, white nonprofit leaders need to step aside and allow their workers’ to decide what their compensation package should look like (if paying more currently isn’t on the table) is that they come up with the most asinine solutions when left to their own devices.
I’ve received surprise pizza parties, discounts to expensive shops, and one organization I worked for even tried to become my landlord, giving me super-reduced rent in a property the nonprofit owned (great in theory, really bad in their execution). All of these ‘benefits’ were less than useless in different ways.
Occasional surprise pizza parties are useless for everyone but especially useless for someone with as many allergies as me. Every rich, white leader in every job I’ve ever worked at thought the solution to employee dissatisfaction was a surprise pizza party. As if lactose and gluten were the perfect ingredients to make us forget that we were continually pushed to produce more with less.
Food is an excellent resource to provide (especially when your pay rates make food a luxury), but a one-time pizza slice isn’t it. If you’re going to offer food, offer a gift card to your employees’ neighborhood grocery stores so they can have agency in what they buy and consume.
Discounts to expensive shops are also useless when your pay makes it “hard to support yourself.” I can’t say which shops my rich, white ED got discounts from (because they all have discretion clauses), but just know that they are very expensive outdoor outfitters. If I get a 40-50% discount from those stores, that’s still $53.40 for a flannel shirt (I just looked it up). I can’t afford $53 shirts, no matter how much I want to support the company or how nice the shirts are.
That discount is only useful to those who are paid decently — namely, the rich, white ED who attained the discount or my co-workers who are “in a committed relationship with somebody else with an income.” It’s not a benefit I can use, so it’s not a benefit that I actually have and can’t be used as a substitute for pay.
And let’s close out this section with the ultimate non-benefit I’ve received: the workplace as a landlord with cheap rent. In theory, this might have been a good idea if my landlord/ED held herself responsible for the housing and had respect for work-life balance. But in this situation, living onsite meant that I was basically on-call at all times. I had random people the nonprofit served at my door, board members dropping by during our events to ask me for things when I was off-the-clock, and was called to “check on” things in the main building more than once.
But that wasn’t the worst of it.
On one particularly cold February night, the pipes under the trailer froze. The ED and building manager hired plumbers who started a small fire under the trailer to thaw them. When the steam hit the sewer, it was all over. Sewer gas and some raw sewage came up through all the pipes in the trailer. I suddenly found myself unhoused in the dead of winter and turned to my workplace for help (as the landlord that had made this horrible decision that led to my current situation). The word was, this was my problem and I had to take care of it off business hours or using my limited PTO.
So, in mid-February, I found myself working full-time, while being unhoused and couch surfing with my friends. On top of that, trying to salvage my belongings and breathing in that sewer gas resulted in my left lung partially collapsing. Between the medical bills, the eating out (since I didn’t have access to a kitchen), and signing a rental agreement outside of my price range with the only apartment available in the middle of winter, I ate up my savings created by this cheap rent, and then some.
Benefits, like housing, are only as useful as the equity-consciousness of the organization providing them. If the organization had helped me find new housing, provided health insurance or assistance for my partially collapsed lung, and given me paid time off that didn’t drain my reserves to figure things out, that benefit wouldn’t have been a dud. But, when you’re a rich, white person who sees substandard wages as an embarrassing fact of nonprofit work, who thinks of the bottom budget line of an organization before the employees that do the work, and who treats your employees as disposable, you’re not going to think of, much less offer those things.
I know that organizations like to streamline their benefits so everyone has the same benefits, and they consider it the ‘fair’ thing to do, but if you’re doing your hiring right, your employees will be diverse and have different needs.
Other useless benefits I’ve been offered include a 401(k) with no match (how can I put money into a 401(k) if I am not guaranteed I can meet my immediate financial needs?) and a yearly meeting with a wealth management advisor (what wealth are we managing?). That’s not to say that these aren’t useful things to offer. Just be aware that they are not an alternative to providing livable wages and will only be useful to your employees who are “in a committed relationship with somebody else with an income.” You need to offer something useful for your employees who aren’t in that kind of relationship.
So what can white, rich leaders provide?
First, rich, white leaders need to ask their workers who are not rich or white what they actually need. That’s the first thing.
I know that organizations like to streamline their benefits so everyone has the same benefits, and they consider it the ‘fair’ thing to do, but if you’re doing your hiring right, your employees will be diverse and have different needs. Find out what those needs are and try to meet them.
Ask people who don’t have the same lived experience as you what they would love in a workplace. If you aren’t sure what you can offer or if your employees aren’t sure what they can ask for, here are some examples of things I would love to see across all organizations regardless of pay:
A 30-hour work week worked at a speed that allows for spaciousness.
Tons of research all over the world have already concluded, long ago, that working more hours doesn’t make us more productive and workplace burnout (caused by the workplace’s culture — it is literally never the employee’s fault they burn out, so, no, yoga and more pizza parties are not solutions) is REAL.
At my current job, I used to put in 45-50 hours a week, working manic hours just trying to stay ahead of the deluge of tasks I was continually given. And when I completed an entire pile, what happened? Was I given time for rest? No, I was given a new heap of difficult and time-sucking tasks with insufficient, cheap, or free tools to complete them. Nowadays, I refuse to work more than 40 hours a week. It’s not worth the strain on my mental well-being.
Additionally, when we’re given too many tasks to do, or encouraged or forced to work as fast as possible, we don’t create the spaciousness to do so thoughtfully. That’s when inequities can start to creep into our work.
The 40-hour work week, like low pay in the sector, is a standard we don’t examine enough. That standard originated during the Industrial Revolution to combat employers who forced their employees to work long hours, every day. The 40-hour work week is just a number labor activists came up with as the maximum we should be giving to work. And yet, nowadays, we use that number as the minimum of “full-time” work.
Best-known science says that “long work hours erode health.” (For a deeper dive, check out Lauren Brooks’ “The 40-hour work week is more harmful than helpful. Here’s what to do instead”). In this underpaid nonprofit worker’s opinion, 30 hours should be the max you ask of your employees (while still paying full-time benefits).
So, what about the employers who know they are paying substandard wages? Consider a portion of those 30 hours full-time if you know you aren’t paying a competitive wage. This allows spaciousness for your employees to get a side hustle to cover the difference without spending every waking hour working. To determine the portion, find equitable salary bands for the job and base your full-time hours on it. (For more on salary bands, check out Erika Chen’s “Pay equity: performative or palpable?”)
For example, using Glassdoor, I found out that a Communications Manager in Denver, working in the nonprofit sector with an employer size of 0-50 employees, and 4-6 years of experience would make at least $56k, with the average base pay of $81,362. Remember that. We’re going to come back to these numbers in a moment.
In July 2020, Colorado finally enacted a minimum salary! And it’s a salary that is set to increase significantly each year until 2024! Huzzah! In April 2021, my ED learned about the minimum salary (and said she wished I had told her when I found out, to which I responded “I assumed y’all knew and, since nonprofits were exempt, decided to keep me where I was at.” LOL). I received a 17% increase to match it. And after getting a 10% increase at the beginning of this year, I am happy to report that I am making Colorado’s new minimum salary of $45,000.
Let’s go back to those numbers from Glassdoor. That means I make 80% of the low end of that salary band. So, if we use the standard of 30 hours per week as the full-time minimum hours, that would amount to 24 hours per week to remain full-time. Those hours would help me get a side gig and/or build my business while giving me time for rest. (If you, as the employer, don’t like that idea, maybe you ought to just pay more. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯)
We also need to talk about ‘unlimited PTO.’ Unlimited PTO should be given and it should come with a guideline of how much time must be taken within the year and a discussion that time off is time off, not time to catch up on back burner projects and not time to continue checking email. (Since studies have shown that people with unlimited PTO actually tend to take off less than those with limited PTO and tend to work more during that time).
For marginalized and underpaid employees, this can be a mental wellbeing game changer. I don’t know how rich, white leaders thought I was going to have my job at the forefront of my mind the day after mass graves of Indigenous children were discovered — how was I meant to be engaged the day after the Pulse shooting — how was I meant to be present the day after the Atlanta spa shootings. These were terrorist actions enacted against members of my communities. My mind wasn’t on communicating our latest news in community science projects. It was on these communities and in my own thoughts.
With unlimited PTO, I could have taken the time I needed to sit with my emotions, call my relations and community members, heal, and find ways to volunteer to help with the communal healing.
With unlimited PTO, I can also get my therapy during business hours to help me deal with the accumulated stress of working in a predominantly white, cisgender, and heterosexual institution.
With unlimited PTO, your employees who are guardians can truly tend to the children or other dependents under their care.
Unlimited PTO means that your workers will truly have a work-life balance they can’t have when they are limited to [insert random number] weeks and a short sabbatical after [enter random number] years of work.
I’ll never get over the first time I was asked to “donate” my PTO to a co-worker who had a particularly horrible year and had used all hers up early. I felt for her, but why did I need to donate the time I needed away from my desk? Why didn’t leadership just provide what that employee needed? What did they think they stood to ‘lose,’ by treating that employee like she was valuable and cared for?
Offer free childcare during work events to your employees. (This would also be an excellent value-added service to the people you serve). And allow spaciousness and flexibility for parents to care for their children during work hours. (I’ve never understood why we don’t already do this as the nonprofit sector where women make 73% of the total workforce, and 70% of women in cisgender heterosexual relationships with children say they do most of the child care.) Obviously, there is a need.
Thank goodness I don’t have any children because I Googled the average cost of care per month here in Denver and it’s $1,300 for one infant child! Between rent and childcare, that would be more than my entire take-home pay for the month!
Close down the office for at least one week for a reset for all staff. This would also be paid time off, which staff could use (or not) as they needed. But the office would be “closed” even for staff who decided not to use it, meaning they wouldn’t be inundated with new tasks during this time. Decide as a staff group when that happens (and stagger it if your nonprofit can’t logistically take off that time together). Maybe it makes sense for your staff to take one week off during the summer, eliminating child care for a week and giving time for staff to spend time with their kids. Maybe it makes sense at the end of the year because of what you do. Maybe the communities you serve need you at both of those times, but there’s another time that works in your schedule to take a week off to reset and rest. There are a ton of organizations that already do this (including two that I recently interviewed with — The Center on Colfax and RedLine Contemporary Art Center).
These ideas are all from my beautiful mind, but do check in with your workers to see what it is that they need, individually.
And guess what, leadership! You can pay your employees more, today!
Why is it when there’s a budget shortfall, the first places that are cut are the fees for useful tools and employee compensation? Why is it never the printing budget for events?
All that and now I’m going to say that you can pay your employees more. You are choosing not to.
How often as nonprofit workers have we seen money not listed in the budget magically get diverted for random trinkets to make our events flashy? How many professionally crafted awards and plaques are suddenly affordable when someone in leadership decides what an event needs to increase attendance is a rich honoree?
Why is it when there’s a budget shortfall, the first places that are cut are the fees for useful tools and employee compensation? Why is it never the printing budget for events? (No one actually wants that commemorative, professionally printed program guide. Plus, an online version is more accessible since you can include a translation add-on, and it can be read by a screenreader!)
These are choices you’ve made rather than increasing salaries you know are unlivable.
Already cut the printing budget for events? Well, there’s no reason why, if you are an ED tasked with the budget of your organization, you can’t take that cut instead of expecting them to.
I literally can’t wrap my head around this common and wholly inequitable practice. In every position of relative power I’ve had (volunteer coordinator, Assistant Master-at-Arms in the U.S. Naval Sea Cadet Corps, manager of AmeriCorps members at a nonprofit), I had a strict rule never to make someone else do what I was not willing to do myself. I don’t remember how I decided that was a thing, but I made that choice and I stuck with it. If the bathrooms at our Division had to be cleaned, I was always right there with my volunteers, because I’m not an asshole.
In the case of nonprofits, if the ED is making the decisions leading to the budget shortfall, someone else shouldn’t be paying for it!
I’ll leave my employers alone for a minute (sort of — all of this, of course, applies) and look at a job listing I recently saw that listed a salary range for a Philanthropy & Community Engagement Coordinator with a salary range that was 84-91% the Colorado minimum salary. I decided to look at the organization’s 990s (because I’m nosy and that’s what they’re there for, right?), and their net income was $25,135 in 2020. That’s significantly lower than the previous years, but it’s still a pretty sum. That’s enough to increase nearly four employees from 84% of the Colorado minimum salary and meet it.
The ED made $80,346 in that same year. The average salary for a nonprofit Executive Director of Business Development (Executive Director alone wasn’t an option in Glassdoor, as far as I could find) in Denver is $65,726. This ED could take that cut of $6,500 to bring that position up to the minimum salary in this state and still make 112% more than the average Executive Director in the area.
None of your employees should be living under a minimum salary or wage when you are making more than the average salary. Hell, they shouldn’t be making that little if you’re making above the minimum salary yourself!
Sometimes to be equitable, you need to make the same amount as your employees. I promise you, if you are a rich, white ED, you can weather that better than your marginalized employees can.
In fact, there are a number of organizations (Sylvia Rivera Law Project, AS220, Sociocracy For All, and Sunrise Movement) that have already enacted the same salary band for all employees, no matter what the position. Their operationalization of this varies. Some have the same flat salary and some have a range and employees are invited to let leadership know how much they need within that range. And what could be more equitable than removing hierarchical models of ‘worth’ amongst employees that are all necessary to move your mission forward?
If you expect your employees to live below a livable wage because of the importance of your mission, you can certainly make less than you ‘should’ for that mission. And if you don’t like being expected to bring all your knowledge and experience to a position that doesn’t fairly compensate you, maybe as leadership, you should do something to improve those conditions now rather than considering it an unfortunate ‘reality’ for your employees working in the nonprofit sector.
Chris Talbot-Heindl (they/them) is a queer, trans nonbinary, triracial artist and nonprofit employee. When they aren’t working the day job, they spend their free time editing an art and literature magazine, writing and illustrating educomics to help folx affirm their nonbinary pals, creating a graphic novel to describe what it’s like to be nonbinary in a gender binary world, cuddling their cat, and quad skating in the park. You can find Chris at talbot-heindl.com, on LinkedIn, and Twitter — and tip them on Vemno @Chris-Talbot-Heindl.