Why you should pay nonprofit employees more

What is your value?It kills me every time we celebrate the per hour value of a volunteer. Not because I hate volunteers, but because it exposes one of the biggest double-standards in the nonprofit sector.

Independent Sector rated the national per hour value of volunteer time at $23.07 - essentially, that’s what we’d pay someone if we averaged out all of the in-kind value from volunteers everywhere. In Minnesota, it’s even higher at $24.83.

But here’s the thing: that $24.83 equates to an annual salary of nearly $51,600. Why are we paying our nonprofit employees so much less?

No, seriously. Why do nonprofits pay entry level (and frequently mid-level) employees such low salaries? Based on our 2015 YNPN Twin Cities member survey, 73% of our members make less than $49,000 per year and a full 19% of you make less than $30,000 a year. And we’re not complete newbies - for context, 70% of our members have been in the sector three to ten years.

It’s commonly said that if you want to find out someone’s values, look at how they spend their money. By this measure, as a nonprofit sector, one of our values is barely livable wages.

I am all for paying people fair salaries equivalent to their experience and the value they contribute. I just think across the board as a sector, we’re doing a pretty terrible job of that. Don’t even get me started on the role AmeriCorps plays in setting low wages, because that’s an entire other post (seriously, it's already drafted).

We pay such low salaries partially because most of our revenue comes from contributed sources. As a fundraiser, I get that paying people more means we need to ask other people and organizations to donate more. Can you imagine that direct mail piece? Salary increases do not open donor wallets. Grant requests are considerably less compelling when you want to pay your staff more.

As employees, we’ve also contributed to the problem. We work in this sector because we’re driven by mission and passion. Some of us are so pumped about impact that we’ll volunteer to do this work for free. While that passion is important, it also undercuts our collective negotiation position as people in need of a paycheck.

We’ll pay you more when you earn it, you say. If your entry-level employees are like the young staff members and YNPN Twin Cities members I’ve met, we’re earning it 20 times over. We’re tutoring 3rd graders to help read at grade level; we’re helping youth fill out college applications; we’re driving a homeless mom to a court hearing for a restraining order; we’re mail merging, stuffing envelopes and getting your direct mail appeal out the door and into hands of donors. Let me tell you - we have earned our paycheck and more. Young staff members are asked to put in long hours and make miracles out of dust.

The advice you’ll hear is to negotiate your salary, and that we (especially women and people of color) are being held back by an unwillingness to negotiate salaries and raises. Yes, more people need to negotiate salaries and advocate for themselves. At the same time, when the pay range is $28,000-$30,000 for a position with 3-5 years of experience, we are negotiating within a broken system. We tell people to advocate for pennies when the nonprofit system and culture is structured explicitly to pay low wages.

But if we’re concerned about the sustainability and capacity of our sector as a whole, we need to pay our nonprofit employees better. Higher wages increases access for more job candidates, making it slightly easier for candidates of color to apply and accept nonprofit jobs. Better salaries mean staff aren’t constantly looking for the next slightly higher paying gig. We can recruit the people we want without having to worry that they won’t take the job because it’s a pay cut. Nonprofit employees can focus on better serving low-income clients as opposed to worrying that we’ll become clients ourselves. And on top of all of that, we can pay off our student loans faster and start contributing to the economic growth of our communities. More people can take vacations and avoid burn-out, more people will stay in the sector for longer, and we’ll build a better leadership pipeline for the upcoming wave of baby boomer retirements. Bottom line, competitive nonprofit salaries is about increased equity within our organizations.

So let’s start benchmarking our wages against the for-profit sector and start making a plan to raise salaries across the board. Young people, let’s break the salary silence, figure out what our peers are making, and advocate for the raises we collectively deserve. And when we become managers ourselves, let’s use our authority to promote wage increases for our entry-level staff.

We value the energy and time of a volunteer at over $51,000 a year. Let’s value our nonprofit employees the same way.

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