By Chris Talbot-Heindl, communications professional and perpetually underpaid nonprofit laborer
“I’m writing an article about how to start offering equitable pay and I’m remembering an organization that had every person’s salary band start the same, regardless of their position, and had it based on need (those with more dependents earned at the higher end of the band, those without generational wealth, earned at the higher end, etc). But I can’t, for the life of me, remember the name of the organization or where I saw it. Can anyone offer guidance?”
This is what I asked three different groups as I set out to research something for my last article “Underpaid staff don’t need motivation, they need dollar bills and benefits.”
I asked because I knew I had heard of an organization doing just this and assumed I had heard it in one of these three groups. It was a straightforward question, and I expected a straightforward answer.
In two of the groups, one composed entirely of BIPOC members and one that is BIPOC-led with white members, a straightforward answer was what I received.
A lot of our white, cisgender, heterosexual, abled colleagues are comfortable with the status quo and either consciously or unconsciously seek to maintain it because it (typically) works out fine for them.
In the third group, a primarily white one with a listed raison d’être of moving the nonprofit sector “toward one that is more equitable and just,” I began to receive notification after notification of comments. Excited to see that maybe there were more organizations than the one I was thinking of who worked in this model, I clicked through …
… only to find out a bunch of white women in the group had begun to subject me to a deluge of ways in which this model could be perverted with white supremacy culture and patriarchal values to become injurious.
A few white women even came in to say that they would be angry, upset, and one said: “sick to my stomach” that people with dependents would be paid more.
(They need more money to survive! Why would you want children or otherwise dependent people to live in poverty? You aren’t getting less because they need and are receiving more. You are getting what you need, and they would be getting what they need.)
So many white women commented to say that they didn’t want to be forced to disclose personal information to get better pay, and it would likely result in women taking less and men taking more.
(Even if this was the case, how would that differ from now?)
That assumed that the organization in question structured things in a white philanthropy sing-for-your-supper style, where the biggest sob story gets the greatest attention and funding.
(Why was that the assumption? And why was I being held to account for it?)
To say I was disappointed would be an understatement. I was angry.
I added an edit, saying:
“I asked this to find out what the organization was, not to hear the ways in which it could be implemented through a lens of white supremacy to become a bad thing. Please, respect that it was a Black-owned or queer-owned organization, based in radical justice and equity, and not whatever you fear it might be perverted and turned into. I don’t need to hear it. I [already] heard it in the original article’s comments. I just want to know what the organization is. If you want to discuss your fears, make a new post, please.”
But that didn’t stop white women (and a few others) from making up ways in which equal salary bands would be inequitable (and then holding me accountable for their imaginings).
It’s one thing to bring up potential pitfalls. It’s quite another to immediately view a potential solution to a huge problem in our sector with a hostile lens and speak to it with a vilifying framing before you even explore how it could be or has been implemented!
For me, it pointed to other problems indicative of the nonprofit sector:
- We have a propensity to do things the same as they’ve always been done for no discernible reason other than we’re afraid any change will fail, even as we recognize that the way we are doing things now has failed (inequity being operationalized is a failure).
- A lot of our white, cisgender, heterosexual, abled colleagues are comfortable with the status quo and either consciously or unconsciously seek to maintain it because it (typically) works out fine for them.
There are a number of problems at work in how people responded to my simple question, and it’s incredibly important that we investigate what these problems are and how we’ve perpetuated white supremacist characteristics in our organizations — and how this has stopped us from making headway in equity in the sector.
In order to solve pay inequity, we have to recognize that it exists and furthers the chasm between privileged and marginalized peoples’ wealth
In the BIPOC-only and BIPOC-led groups that I posed my question to, I received answers of “It might be this one!” and “I don’t know but I would like to learn more!” Eye emojis and follow-up questions were posted in the threads. People leaned in with curiosity, wanting to see who implemented this strategy of pay equity and how it worked. We discussed the harm in hierarchical models.
Our sector has been rife with doing things the wrong way because it’s easier, cheaper, and we can get away with it. But when we’re trying to fix things because they’re inequitable, I don’t think we need to assume that structuring them with inequities is inevitable. I think we can spend our time envisioning and working towards something better.
In the group with mostly white people, there was a range of grievances (entirely fictional), discomforts with the model and how it could be implemented, and anxieties about how they would be personally affected. I was told several times that following market value was the obvious answer.
But we already know the market isn’t a great way to base pay. We know that certain positions have an inflated “worth” and many incredibly important careers are devalued.
Throughout the first year of the pandemic, we cheered (and, in Denver, howled) for our grocery store workers who worked through the lockdown, who made sure that all of us could survive. But the market rate doesn’t reflect the necessity, or the danger, of this job. The range of salaries for a grocery store worker in the US is $17,440-34,760, with a median salary of $21,010.
We also know that the market values positions historically (and still overwhelmingly) held by white workers. That didn’t happen by accident — that is a racial inequity woven into our societal fabric that we have yet to disentangle.
And while the education, credentialing, and skills gap has closed between Black workers and white workers, the wage gap hasn’t. White workers are more likely to get hired for good-paying jobs. Black and Latinx workers are more likely to be laid off when technology advances and fewer workers are needed. Black workers will spend more of their careers at lower-level positions and will be paid less than their white counterparts for doing them.
I’ve had the displeasure of witnessing racial bias play out in real-time, several times. In a board meeting, a board member (all members of this board were white and cisgender, by the way), unblinkingly said something akin to: “And maybe we can save one board seat for a person of color. But their skin color can’t be all they bring to the table. They have to have skills, too.”
In another meeting, a co-worker (all my co-workers at this job were white and cisgender, except me) unblinkingly said something akin to: “Of course, we should bring more diversity into the staff, but we should do that at the intern level so that they can learn and work their way up.”
Both these statements betray the fact that the white people in these white-led organizations can’t fathom that a BIPOC person would have the skillsets to enter the work hierarchy in a space as high as they occupy — rather, they imagined that a BIPOC person would have to work their way up into it from the bottom.
If one looked at my resume and LinkedIn profile, this bias is the story it would tell. It displays a series of low-level jobs and internships since I started in the nonprofit sector in 2001, all with no opportunity for advancement — or even ending because I was “difficult” for bringing inequities to light (I didn’t advertise that bit on LinkedIn.).
If you only hire people who have “done it before” then you’ll miss out on every marginalized person who hasn’t gotten promoted because their bosses couldn’t “picture them doing the job”.
— Catt Small (@cattsmall) August 22, 2021
(A great Tweet by Catt Small that says “If you only hire people who have ‘done it before’ then you’ll miss out on every marginalized person who hasn’t gotten promoted because their bosses couldn’t ‘picture them doing the job.’” Original tweet)
If you deep dive into Catt Small’s blog after seeing that tweet (a totally normal thing to do, right — my spouse thinks it’s a sort of low-key cyberstalking, LOL), you’ll get to her amazing article “If you’re risk-averse, you’ll never have a diverse leadership team,” which brings us to the next point:
In order to solve the problems we are tasked to solve, we need to be prepared to be brave and to fail and learn from those failings
In her blog, she states, “Risk-aversion reinforces systemic injustices and harms businesses.” This is true about hiring and promoting marginalized workers and it’s also true about seeking out imbalances and inequities in our organizational structures and rectifying those.
In the organization I work for, we’re a team of five. All team members are needed to complete the work we do. Yet, I was paid (before Colorado enacted a minimum salary) in a way that indicated that I was not a valued or worthy member of the team. Now, I finally make Colorado’s minimum salary. There is no equity in paying me well below a livable wage — especially as I am the only non-white, non-cisgender, and not-heterosexual member on staff — and the only one with DEI expertise.
As a multiple marginalized individual, I was expected to live below a livable wage because of the importance of the mission, while my teammates (who had better circumstances and more safety nets in place than me) did not.
But our mission does not move forward without me (or someone else in my position) communicating what we do, fundraising so we can do what we do, and organizing our events.
That’s why when I heard about the Black- and queer-led organization that had enacted the same salary band for all employees, no matter their position, I was intrigued. After all, what could be more equitable than removing hierarchical models of ‘worth’ amongst employees that are all necessary?
But in the third group, the white-dominant one, that I asked my question to, staying the course was treated as the better solution than trying a band structure and failing. (I also received a lot of angry reacts, which has led me to write a chapbook that I am affectionately calling “Why must the white cis nonprofit workers angry react to all my posts? Essay and thoughts by a queer, trans, mixed-race professional surviving predominantly white cisgender heterosexual institutions.”) Here is my cover for the collection, for your amusement:
(A cover depicting white people in business casual clothing with their faces replaced by Facebook angry react emojis. The title across the top reads “Why must the white cis nonprofit workers angry react to all my posts? Chris Talbot-Heindl.” The subtitle is on labels taped to a gray filing cabinet and says “Essay and thoughts by a queer, trans, mixed-race professional surviving predominantly white cisgender heterosexual institutions.”)
Our sector has been rife with doing things the wrong way because it’s easier, cheaper, and we can get away with it. But when we’re trying to fix things because they’re inequitable, I don’t think we need to assume that structuring them with inequities is inevitable. I think we can spend our time envisioning and working towards something better. (And at the very least, stop angry reacting and directing fears to a queer, trans, mixed-race person simply asking for the name of an organization).
Since a lot of our white, cisgender, heterosexual, abled colleagues are comfortable with the status quo and either consciously or unconsciously seek to maintain it because it (typically) works out fine for them — their logic is: Why change something, and create a devil you don’t know, when the devil you do know isn’t disenfranchising you?
They aren’t being paid well below their coworkers and well below liveable wages due to their marginalizations. The inequities already at play don’t affect them as much, so they aren’t being braver in rectifying the issues. They don’t have to be. It isn’t affecting their long-term financial sustainability like it is mine.
However, for people who do live consistently too close to the poverty line, who don’t have generational wealth to fall back on, who don’t have inheritances to look forward to, we need something to change, even if it isn’t the most perfect, polished thing yet. Our objective isn’t perfection. We can learn and adjust from every misstep. But we have to be taking steps towards something transformational instead of continuing practices we know harm the most marginalized among us.
So what about those salary bands?
The good news is that for every angry white person who subjected me to their fears and anger, there was someone else answering my question or showing interest in knowing, and I learned that there are a lot more organizations than the one I was originally thinking about, who are doing this. Here are just a few of those organizations and quotes from them about how they chose to implement their bands.
Sylvia Rivera Law Project — $100,000/year.
“Consistent with our values as a collective, all staff receive salaries based on the same hourly rate. An increased salary is possible based on need, such as for people supporting family members.”
Momentum Community — $55,000–$70,000/year.
“Our current staff practices needs-based compensation rather than market-based compensation, which means that staff are not compensated on the basis of the ‘value’ of their work (which is invaluable!), or on their level of experience or expertise, but rather on the basis of their financial needs.”
Sunrise Movement — $48,000–$80,000/year.
“Sunrise has a unique, needs-based compensation policy in which all staff are able to choose the compensation rate that best meet their needs within the $48–$80k range.”
I would highly recommend that all the white women (and others) that presented their fears about salary bands to think further and envision the solutions to those fears, rather than throw away the whole process based on imagining how this might be implemented with white supremacy and patriarchal values at the forefront.
And maybe salary bands won’t work for every organization. Maybe they won’t work for you. But I appreciate these organizations trying, learning, and adjusting. I appreciate the people with open minds, who were willing to hear how it is being implemented.
Instead of fearing change and not taking steps because we’re afraid to risk harm, we should work through how we will heal those that are the most impacted if our changes do end up causing harm. We need to be making steps because we know the status quo is harmful already. Taking steps, any steps, rooted in equity will be how we start to heal.
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.
Thank you! I am sharing this article with my team.
Thank you for this! As a black, solo mom, I was able to present my needs as part of my salary requirements. My supervisor, a childless white man, recognized my greater need (and skills related to my need) and took a pay cut to get me on staff. We’re an established non-profit and the status quo is what board members and our CEO demand all most. But they went along with this because it didn’t effect them. So my point, folx should always present their needs. And they’re organizations that don’t advertise need based pay, but give need based pay when it’s brought up.
Great article! I’m curious whether you talked to the organizations about how they moved from market-based pay to need-based pay and whether you found any white-led organizations with this model?
I like the idea of this, but the only question I have is how do you determine need? One person may choose to live a frugal lifestyle (eat out infrequently, shop at thrift stores, etc) and save money, while another may live a more extravagant lifestyle (drive a higher end car, buy designer clothes, eat out multiple times a week, etc.). How does an organization determine need when lifestyle plays into so much?
I think you look at it systemically. Systemic oppression has resulted in a wealth and resource gap. Systemic lack of support in the country for people raising children results in resource gaps. So factor in both and you have a structure to work with. It’s about systems not individual choices.
Chris, your article made me think of this episode of on NPR’s planet money. It spotlights a company that literally allowed workers to set their own salaries. Here’s the snippet on Twitter,
“Annabelle Roberts runs a small company. She called to tell us how she’s convinced her employees to stay while a lot of people are quitting their jobs. Her strategy: give the people whatever they want.”
And here’s the full reporting from NPR’s Planet Money. This specific segment starts around minute 19, https://www.npr.org/2021/12/17/1065332194/no-shortage-of-labor-stories
It made me wonder how the questions you asked in that group white members would have been received if a white person had asked/proposed it.
Hi! Have y’all heard of Vega Mala Consulting, where they are working on exactly this exact compenstation equity pay scale calculator? http://www.vegamala.com
Please do contact them for more information and to join their work as a client or cohort organization!
Hi Chris! This is awesome that you’re tackling this question, and the nonsense that goes with it. Might the organization you’re thinking of be either us, Vega Mala Consulting (www.vegamala.com) or Sustainable Economies Law Center (www.theselc.org/)? If not, I’d love to introduce these into your list of resources. Both of us are doing pretty innovative and wealth-gap-reducing compensation work with social justice organizations. (I can brag because it’s my wife Mala who is the HR equity mad scientist on the team 🙂
Thanks again for all you do!
This was a great article and I straight up LOL’d at the book cover.