It’s Time to Move the Needle on Nonprofit Employee Pay

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I started working in the nonprofit sector a long time ago (in 1993) at the ripe old age of 19. I was so happy to have a job I loved, where I could make a difference, that I didn’t really care what they paid me. And they didn’t pay me. At that nonprofit, I worked for nothing the first year and a half and then for a $500/month stipend for the next several years before eventually moving up to a salary I was awed by ($45,000 dollars) for serving as the Executive Director.

In the years since, my salary has moved up, but the pay of direct service employees in nonprofits has remained far too low. While serving as the CEO for the YWCA of Delaware, we exceeded our financial goals and were able to award our employees a modest holiday bonus ($300 dollars each). That is really not a lot of money in a world where corporate executives fly around in corporate jets and earn 3 million plus salaries before stock options and bonuses. I must admit, I had not spent much time thinking about the salaries of direct service employees since – like most nonprofit executives – I spent most of my time scrapping and fighting for every dollar to keep the doors open.

All that changed for me the day we handed out those bonuses. After the staff meeting where the bonuses were distributed, one of our shelter staff came up to me in tears and told me about how she didn’t think she was going to be able to buy her kids Christmas presents and now she could. She was incredibly gracious and thankful but she probably had no idea how her words hit me. I felt like one of the world’s worst nonprofit leaders in that moment. I’d spent years fighting for our clients and the nonprofits I ran but it never dawned on me to fight for our employees too.

These are the people who stock the food shelves, who leave their families in the middle of the night to meet with a rape victim at the hospital, who expose themselves to danger by doing street outreach at some daring hours in some high crime areas. These are the people who have angry teenagers yell at them, spit at them and sometimes hit them, people who give up having kids or giving their kids vacations, health care, private schools or even a house to live in, all because they chose making the world a better place over money. Just because they are not motivated by money does not mean we should take advantage of them or take them for granted. Our Boards and our funders expect us to have low turnover, high morale and great program outcomes. Here is my question: how do you expect to achieve that when you are giving people an incredibly hard and incredibly heartbreaking and exhausting job and paying them barely more than poverty wages?

According to the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits 2016 Salary & Benefits Report, direct care staff earned an average of $16.58 per hour. That’s $34,486 per year.

That’s barely enough for a single adult to live on – the living wage in Minnesota (defined as a wage that would provide for an average standard of living, with about a third spent on housing) for one person is $10.95 per hour. However, add just one child and the living wage leaps to $24.18. In a sector that’s devoted to improving people’s lives, it’s an embarrassment that the people doing that hands-on day-to-day work can’t even afford to raise a single child comfortably on their salary.

At the Bridge, we’re taking steps to change the status quo. In the last year and a half, we’ve added two paid holidays, improved our health insurance, and started offering a 3% match for retirement savings, as well as paying our employees more.

In May of 2017, we had our annual Board retreat to discuss our goals for the next few years and I am very proud to say that one of main goals we adopted for the next several years is to invest in our employees. We have conducted an analysis to market of what we pay our employees and agreed with our colleague nonprofits in the runaway and homeless youth sector specifically, to share information about salary and benefits with one another. We will use this information to set a financial goal for the next three years to move all of our employees to at least the 50th percentile for pay and if possible, to go higher than that. We are investing in our employees with better training and onboarding and employee driven committees to give employees an opportunity to tell us what they want to move the needle on morale. In addition, we are looking at adding things like employee wellness incentives, workplace incentives like the ability to bring your pet to work and keeping health insurance costs as low as possible. We are talking to other nonprofits and trying to spark a conversation across our sector and a movement to pay our direct service employees a real living wage.

It is pretty simple: if we invest in our employees, they invest in our organizations by becoming more engaged. When this happens, our clients receive stronger services and we achieve higher outcomes because our employees are not coming to work worried about buying food or paying their rent. Instead, they can focus on what they do best, changing the world.

To donate to The Bridge, click here.

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