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When People Work for Little, Who Pays? or What Nonprofit Employees Could Learn From Freelance Writers When It Comes to Compensation

main.jpgLast month, freelance writer Nate Thayer posted the transcript of an interaction he had with an editor at The Atlantic. The editor in question had read a piece Thayer wrote for another publication and asked him to repurpose it for The Atlantic at no cost. When Thayer pushed back, asking for compensation for his professional services, he was denied. As you can imagine, with the changing landscape of print and online journalism, this story took off, garnering over 700 comments on Thayer’s blog and inspiring a number of responses.

It was Cord Jefferson’s story for Gawker, which this piece draws its title from, that pushed the conversation one step further. Jefferson made an astute and terrifying observation, stating:

“… it doesn't look like media outlets… are going to stop asking for free writing anytime soon. And that means at least one awful thing for the foreseeable future: The writing game will continue to be one rigged for people who already have money.”

Journalism, like any other field, favors those with money. Reading Jefferson’s description of his days as a young freelancer, occasionally dependent on assistance from his parents when a job wasn’t available or wasn’t paid, I had vivid flashbacks to my experience as an AmeriCorps VISTA. That year was essential to my professional development and network-building, but there is simply no way I could have afforded to live on my VISTA stipend and fulfilled financial obligations (like student loans) without assistance from my parents. Choosing to do something I was passionate about was as important to me as it was to Jefferson, but I had the means to be able to make that choice.

Jefferson takes this conversation one step further – he asks who is excluded from the field based on these compensation practices. By accepting low pay to no pay as normal, he argues, journalism as a field “eliminat[es] anyone who needs a paycheck in order to feed themselves and keep a roof over their heads.” The resulting homogeneity in reporting is shocking, especially when it relates to coverage of stories related to race and class; in October of 2012, white reporters wrote a staggering 93 percent of front-page election news stories.

So, what does this have to do with compensation in the nonprofit sector? The karmic payoff for doing socially important work won’t cut it, and we know that. Nonprofit employees are paid for their work, but often far less than their for profit peers with similar levels of experience and responsibility. We are quick to push for better compensation across the board – from entry to executive level. We also acknowledge our sector is not on the cutting edge of diversity. We talk about salaries; we talk about diversity. But how often do we draw a connection between the two?

My VISTA experience was possible because I knew I had financial support available from my family if I needed it. Would I have felt comfortable signing up for a year of minimum wage and state assistance if I didn’t have that support system in place? Probably not. We often bemoan the fact that nonprofit staff don’t reflect the communities they serve, that executive leadership is still predominantly male and white, and we pay lip service to the fact that we could deliver services in a more effective way if our staff was more diverse in race, experience, and perspective. But what action do we take to make that possible?

Programs like the Bush Foundation’s Staff Fellows are attempting to develop a more diverse leadership pipeline, and that’s wonderful. But it’s time we all drew clearer connections between salary and access. This isn’t simply about being paid well to do something good. It’s about, as Jefferson put it, reminding ourselves how easy it is to “trudge on, forgetting what a luxury it is to do what you want to do for a living rather than what you have to do to survive.” Let’s take a page from the journalist’s book and move the conversation beyond fair compensation to radically inclusive compensation. We would all, individually and as a sector, be better for it.

What do you think? What can we do to achieve radically inclusive compensation?


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