When nonprofit staff are paid so low they qualify for their org’s services

Written by Vu Le

A while ago, at the request of some colleagues, I talked about “Nonprofit Math” and created a little video that went viral. One of the examples I brought up was “paying your staff so little that they qualify for the services your organization is providing.” That line got a lot of chuckles.

It’s so great how we can laugh at ourselves! One of my favorite pieces of humor is an Onion article called “Nonprofit Fights Poverty with Poverty.”

But OK, a lot of humor is rooted in at least some fraction of truth, and it’s time we confront this one. Although the idea that some people are paid so little they could qualify to be a client for their own or another nonprofit’s programs seems ridiculous, the reality is that it does happen. And probably with more frequency than we realize. Last week, a friend of mine who lives in a very expensive area of the US texted me this:

Let’s talk about nonprofits that don’t pay a living wage. My current survival job pays me $27.50 an hour (their original job offer was lower, and the top of the range is $28) as a career coach in a program for finding people employment at a living wage. I qualify to be in that program because if you make under $35 an hour, you qualify as low-income enough to get into this program. The MIT living wage calculator says a living wage in this county is anything over $28. Irony! I coach people to go on and make more money than I make as their coach!”

Here’s the kicker. “The mission of this organization is to end poverty!” Yikes!

In this sector, there are so many things I realize we just take as a par for the course; we accept them with a “when in Rome” attitude: “When in nonprofit, do what nonprofits do: pay everyone as little as possible.”

Besides low wages, there are other things. Poor benefits. Six dollars per person per year for professional development. Lack of any sort of retirement benefits. Chairs that are duct-taped together. A gift card to Ross Dress for Less as a Christmas bonus.

But this is just not tenable. We can’t keep accepting all of this as normal. Not when there’s more and more reports of nonprofits being unable to recruit and retain people, with vacancies often lasting for months, and fewer people wanting to lead nonprofits. It affects the entire sector. So many brilliant colleagues I’ve known over the years have left the field, taking their talents with them.

It’s time we get serious about this, and tackle it at the org, sector, and societal level:

At the organizational level:

  • Assess your current wages: Do an audit of your existing wages and see if they meet your area’s level for living wage and if any of your staff qualify for your low-income programs. And remember that your area’s living wage is the floor, not the ceiling. You should aim to surpass it.
  • Prioritize fair compensation: I remember being an executive director having to craft a budget. We are trained to be scrappy and it’s reflected most painfully in the wages. Don’t just make up numbers. Use the local wage surveys, and aim for at least the median for your area. Have a plan, if you don’t already, to meet and exceed the local averages over the next two years.
  • Analyze the disparity in wages: Although Eds/CEOs and other senior leaders are also underpaid compared to their counterparts in other sectors, especially for-profit, it is still disconcerting when senior leaders make significantly more than other staff. Think about having a ratio of some sort, where the highest paid full-time staff cannot earn more than x times the lowest-paid full-time staff.
  • Align with your principles and values: It’s ironic, as my friend says above, that her organization has the mission to end poverty while paying their staff poverty-level wages. That is a complete misalignment of mission, values, and practice. Go through your values and discuss whether your compensation practices live up to them. Use your values to develop some philosophies around compensation at your org.
  • Be honest with funders and donors: We need to tell the full story when it comes to what is needed to compensate staff fairly. The full story is reflected in a budget that accurately captures what the org needs to be successful. It’s also important to be vocal to your funders, donors, and partners about your compensation philosophies. The more nonprofits they hear are trying to pay living wages, the more the messages will sink in and the more supportive they will be.

For funders:

  • Encourage grantees to pay living wages: Nonprofit leaders have been trained to put together scrappy, bare-bones budgets. And some funders seem not just ok with that, but to encourage it by giving funding and attention to those orgs that prove themselves to be “scrappy” or efficient or whatever. Knock that off. Encourage nonprofits to pay their staff fairly.
  • Give out more money and immediately: Increase your payout rate and give out more money. At the very least, increase your grants to match inflation, since the money you granted out several years ago is worth significantly less.

Read full article here.

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About the author

Vu Le

Vu Le (“voo lay”) is a writer, speaker, vegan, Pisces, and the former Executive Director of RVC, a nonprofit in Seattle that promotes social justice by developing leaders of color, strengthening organizations led by communities of color, and fostering collaboration between diverse communities.

Vu’s passion to make the world better, combined with a low score on the Law School Admission Test, drove him into the field of nonprofit work, where he learned that we should take the work seriously, but not ourselves. There’s tons of humor in the nonprofit world, and someone needs to document it. He is going to do that, with the hope that one day, a TV producer will see how cool and interesting our field is and make a show about nonprofit work, featuring attractive actors attending strategic planning meetings and filing 990 tax forms.

Known for his no-BS approach, irreverent sense of humor, and love of unicorns, Vu has been featured in dozens, if not hundreds, of his own blog posts at NonprofitAF.com.