Crummy nonprofit jobs – and solutions

by Betsy Leondar-Wright

Some of the worst pay I ever got was from progressive social justice organizations. No health benefits at one job; no raise for 4 years at another; once a salary so low I qualified for Food Stamps. In an irony of the nonprofit world, their external missions of equity and economic opportunity weren’t put into practice internally.

But rarely did I blame my employers, as I knew that their funding was so scarce that the only alternative to low-paid staff was no staff. Many grants could be spent only on a specific project, but not to keep the organization going, so some paychecks had to come from passing the hat and selling t-shirts. I could cope because I had no dependents and a support network to fall back on.

But crummy job offerings keep many talented people out of the nonprofit sector: single parents; people with low-income families to support, who are disproportionately people of color; first-generation college graduates with massive student loans; people with disabilities and other expensive medical needs; and others.

Low-paying jobs aren’t found only in tiny low-budget nonprofits; they also exist in the bottom rungs of large nonprofits with well-paid management staff, when hiring practices are to set the pay by using market comparisons, which are based on historic gender, race and class discrimination.

This isn’t an easy problem to fix. The solutions need to be systemic, involving funders as well as employers. I’ve been searching for inspiring models, and I’ve found two in other countries.

In Canada, the Ontario Nonprofit Network has a Decent Work project that gives a checklist for employers with ‘basic’, ‘better’ and ‘best’ standards for pay, benefits, security, opportunities for advancement, workplace culture and other aspects of decent jobs. Don’t we need a US checklist?

In Britain, there are Living Wage Friendly Funders that support nonprofits to pay living wages. More than 40 funders have signed up, and over 4,700 employers have been accredited as paying the “real living wage” to all employees. Wouldn’t it be great to have something like that in the US?

I hope that soon there will be. Class Action’s new Staffing the Mission project encourages foundations to give funding for staff raises, especially at the lower end of the wage scale, and to use fair and equitable compensation as a funding criterion.

We have many kindred spirits in this attempt to sway the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors:

  • There’s Fund the People, which makes the case for funding staff training and talent development, including by improving pay and benefits.
  • There’s TSNE MissionWorks, which regularly publishes a wage equity report and helps nonprofits bring human resources policies in line with organizational values.
  • There’s CompassPoint, which advises West Coast nonprofits on workplace equity and which recently moved their own pay structure and hiring practices towards equity.
  • Margi Clark of Roadmap created a report called “The Wages of Peace and Justice” about low pay at social justice groups; while the wage data is now out of date, Roadmap has created some valuable evergreen tools from it, including a salary-setting values discussion guide.
  • The most entertaining voice on the downsides of nonprofit jobs and foundation requirements is the blogger Vu Le (For example, one recent post was titled “When you don’t disclose a salary range on a job posting, a unicorn loses its wings.”) If every funder and employer took his advice, nonprofit jobs would quickly become much higher quality.

While researching these kindred efforts, I discovered positive momentum on one obstacle preventing nonprofits from raising pay: “overhead aversion.” That’s when foundations concerned about impact set low limits on how much they will give for non-program purposes, such as administrative staff salaries. It’s very frustrating to run a nonprofit when most funding can only be used for certain program work. The Center for Effective Philanthropy surveyed grantees and heard that one of their top desires is more flexible funding.

This problem has been tackled by two California projects and a national leader in the field:

But despite all this good work in progress, there’s a need that needs to be filled:

  • Who will offer inspiring compensation models to nonprofits, and then help them to implement them despite budget constraints?
  • Who will point out the class, gender and race inequities caused by market-based salary setting and funder overhead aversion?
  • Who will encourage foundations to give grants to implement living wages?
  • Who will bring together key players who want the nonprofit sector to move toward equity?

Class Action is determined to fill this need with our Staffing the Mission project, which will influence the nonprofit and philanthropy sectors so that more class- and race-diverse staff can thrive.

Our next step is to gather stories about nonprofit jobs and organizational self-assessments, using this confidential survey. If you are (or have been) on the staff or board of a nonprofit organization, can you please fill it out?
We also plan to run a series of blog posts here at Classism Exposed on the theme of nonprofit crummy jobs and decent jobs. If you have a nonprofit horror story or an inspiring compensation model, if you want to write your story up as a blog post, or if you want to help us build this project, I’d like to hear from you at

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