Making the Case
Effective organizing deserves good pay
Not only do all non-profit staff need jobs that cover their cost of living plus money to save, but organizers in particular also need enough income to cover the self-care needed to recover from the stresses of organizing.
A third of the nonprofit workforce in the Northeast qualifies as working poor, one study found.
If pay and benefits don’t keep up with the cost of living, organizing becomes the province of young adults only—and of class-privileged people who have other sources of income.
“I’ve turned 30, and I make more than I’ve ever made. And I still can’t afford a one-bedroom or studio apartment.”– Case Study Interview
“We pay barely a living wage, no matter what your qualifications… it means we basically can only ever hire entry-level staff, or those for whom they or a partner have another substantial source of income.”– Case Study Interview
The race and class diversity needed to have organizers come from affected communities requires spending more on pay and benefits.
It may seem counter-intuitive, but paying more can actually help a nonprofit’s budget, thanks to retention. High turnover is expensive; replacing a staff person typically costs 1.5 to 2 times as much as their compensation. A coordinated compensation strategy will attract and retain powerhouse employees.
“I started at $34k/year, and while I don’t know exact salaries of those at the top, I would venture a guess in the $100k range. I was the only person of color on staff and ended up quitting, exhausted, hurt, and angry.”– Case Study Interview
“The nonprofit sector median salary for entry-level ‘direct service’ positions (disproportionately held by BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, People of Color] is 13% lower than in similar fundraising positions (disproportionately held by white identified employees).”– At the Crossroad
One small, donation-dependent nonprofit that couldn’t afford high salaries instead offered flexible benefits tailored to each employee’s specific needs, as flexible as ERISA rules allow. Base salaries matched the local living cost of living for a family of 3, with a maximum 2-to-1 ratio between the highest- and lowest-paid jobs.
Benefits were flexible; some employees received only health insurance, but others with greater needs also received child care assistance or student loan payments. Considering the cash value of benefits, it sometimes happened that a single mother in a support role got more total compensation than a no-dependents, no-debt senior manager.
“Women and people of color are traditionally less likely to advocate for themselves in salary negotiations, and more likely to undervalue their own work. So, whereas an organization might be prepared to pay $65-70k for a role, if the right candidate says they’ll work for $45k, the organization would happily agree.”– Case Study Interview
“While non-management staff members may not have final decision-making in areas like salary, we do ask for their input on whether they feel their salary is meeting their needs and cost of living, along with exploring other opportunities to offer more benefit to them, such as professional development opportunities since our budget is limited as a small nonprofit.“– Case Study Interview
Note: All quotes are from people surveyed or interviewed for the All Due Respect or Staffing the Mission reports unless otherwise noted.Show less
Questions to consider when setting compensation frameworks
- Are basic human needs met by the organization’s lowest pay, for contractors and interns as well as staff?
- Are your equity commitments and other values reflected in improvements in compensation levels and practices?
- Is the ratio between the highest and lowest paid reasonable and fair?
- Are staff rewarded for essential contributions to the mission?
How to address compensation in the workplace
Sustainable and aspirational solutions to problematic practices
Organizer compensation is lower than the basic cost of living.
Check the MIT Living Wage calculator for your area.
Make sure the lowest pay is above the cost of living for a single adult with one or two children, to cover not just immediate necessities but self-investments such as retirement savings and education.
Consider basing pay levels on need, not only experience and responsibilities.
For example, consider moving staff with dependents, disabilities, student loans or other expenses higher in the pay range for their job title.
(Be careful not to use a protected category such as race or gender as the basis for pay or benefit differentials. Compensation differences can’t cross the line into discrimination.)
Some staff compensation is lower than prevailing rates at comparable organizations.
To research others’ pay for similar positions, use tools such as JVS’s Job Quality Survey; “Find Salaries” on Indeed.com; National Committee on Pay Equity; the Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlooks; and meet prevailing wages, if possible.
Look beyond prevailing wages for organizers, a historically undervalued occupation, and set pay instead based on parity with other mission-essential job categories, such as development.
Years go by without raises, causing pay to fall behind the cost of living.
Give annual COLA raises equal to or exceeding the inflation rate.
If there were past years without raises, calculate how much the cost of living rose then, and adjust pay to catch up.
Ratio between top and bottom pay grows over the years due to percentage raises.
Give flat dollar amount raises (instead of percentage raises) to gradually reduce internal pay inequities.
When the budget doesn’t allow raises for all, prioritize the lowest paid.
Set a maximum ratio between lowest and highest pay.
A 2:1 or 3:1 maximum ratio means that a raise for the ED requires raising the lowest paid first.
Some organizations, such as the Sustainable Economies Law Center, pay all staff the same gross amount.
Pay inequity exists between jobs with comparable skill and responsibility, but typically done by different genders and/ or races.
There may also be inequities based on funding sources, nepotism, credentialism (requiring degrees unnecessarily) or other unfair reasons.
Have a clear written policy for pay levels, specifying job-related reasons for different levels, such as job responsibilities.
Aim for parity in valuing all external relations functions. Just as development staff might be rewarded for fundraising track record and relationships with donors and funders, reward organizers for community relationships, lived experience with the organization’s issue(s) and for cultural roots that garner trust with community members.
Regularly compare actual compensation with the compensation policy. Immediately give raises to eliminate any unfair differences.
Do a full comparable worth audit, with help from the National Committee for Pay Equity or a pay equity consultant. Raise the pay of undervalued job titles.
Often pay ranges are not included in position postings, and compensation varies by applicants’ requests.
Those who negotiate higher pay tend to be highly educated white men and other self-confident people, as well as friends and family members of hiring managers.
Always put pay ranges in position postings (for both staff and contractors). Don’t negotiate above the range.
In interviews, don’t ask for previous pay or for pay expectations.
Decide in advance the criteria for where someone will fall in the pay range (e.g. years of experience, amount of expertise, need).
If staff size allows, two different people should do the hiring process and the final contract negotiations.
Benefit mix doesn’t meet the needs of some categories of employees, such as older staff approaching retirement, parents in need of childcare, and those with student loans.
If the employer contributes to employees’ accounts (e.g. HSA, retirement, flexible benefits) on a percentage basis or matches employee contributions, that favors affluent staff.
Invite staff input into benefit plans.
Remember that it’s more affordable to the employer to fund cash-like benefits (HSAs, childcare reimbursements, student loan payments, transit passes, retirement accounts) than to increase paychecks, which incur employer taxes.
Set up Health Savings Accounts (HSAs) and commuting cost accounts as allowed by the IRS, so that employees can contribute money pre-tax.
Explore variable needs-based benefits, as ERISA allows. Use flexible benefits plans (see Roadmap report for suggestions) to best meet individual staff needs.
Affluent employees with no qualifying needs could voluntarily decline to draw on their accounts.
Make employer contributions to benefits and retirement accounts at a flat per-employee level.
Most small nonprofits offer no retirement accounts at all, not even empty ones where employees can make pre-tax contributions.
One reason is that EDs and other administrative staff sometimes lack the expertise in setting them up.
Check out Just Futures’ user-friendly 401(k) plan for the nonprofit sector with social-justice-oriented investments (currently in process).
Set up retirement accounts even if the employer doesn’t contribute, so that staff can contribute pre-tax.
Investing in organizers and other staff means supporting their long-term futures by substantial retirement contributions, without requiring a staff match.
Compare types of retirement accounts (401(k), SEP, SIMPLE and state-facilitated plans); choose one with socially screened investments that doesn’t burden employees with high fees.
Set up retirement accounts to allow bigger contributions by older workers closer to retirement, legal as long as they don’t favor higher-paid staff.
Interns are often exploited, with minimal or no pay, and given tasks with no educational dimension, which violates IRS rules.
While volunteers are the lifeblood of many community-based organizations, the difference between a volunteer and an intern is that volunteers are not bound to a job description or a certain schedule, but are free to choose their roles. It’s unjust for anyone with specific required shifts and responsibilities not to be paid.
Pay student interns at least the amount that the organization believes the minimum wage should be (e.g. $16/hour), unless their college pays them.
Make sure interns get an educational experience, as required by law.
If the organization provides stipends or expense reimbursements to some volunteers or board members, consider a needs-based sliding scale so low-income people get more.
Consider creating fellowships with educational programing as well as work responsibilities, paid at entry-level professional levels.
Compensation policy is an afterthought, undiscussed and disconnected from the organization’s values and mission.
Build in regular discussions of overall compensation practices, such as at annual retreats. Don’t wait for organizers and other staff and contractors to complain, but proactively notice inflation and inequities.
The board can set an aspirational goal for future, e.g. “We aim to pay within the top 20% of our field, so we can recruit and retain the best diverse talent.”