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Not-for-Profit Compensation: Or No, No, You Don’t Have to Pay Me

I sit on the board of Empower Her Network, an organization serving women who have escaped from human trafficking, gone through the programs assisting with providing recovery support, and are among the lucky few who are ready to move on and make a new, productive life of their own design. That is where we come in. We provide support for their next journey in the form of housing assistance, education, emotional support, and more.

At a recent board meeting, when reviewing the projected budget for 2018, I was struck by the fact that the social worker support numbers seemed very low. $30 an hour? The MSWs that I know bill out at substantially higher numbers than that. Our executive director, who shares my desire to be unafraid to disrupt if it’s the right thing to do, said that it is the going rate for “this type of work.”

“This type of work.” You mean work that tugs at heartstrings and so women offer to do it for less? You mean, in the not-for-profit world, where the name of the industry indicates that any “profit,” even fair market value for labor within the market, should not be fair to those providing it?

A strong discussion ensued about whether or not the market-value depreciation for the service provided was based on women doing the bulk of the labor, and because we often put empathy and purpose above financial compensation. Is it because the women providing the labor want to make sure that the dollars go to the women being served in as many ways as possible rather than paying fair market value for the work we are providing? And, in the end, is this fair? Right? Appropriate?

I’ve sat on dozens of boards over my tenure, most of them surrounding women’s issues and run by women. I am often surprised when I compare the sheer brilliance and competency of management of these not-for-profits—and the ridiculously low compensation packages they receive compared to my clients in the world of for-profit business, who, in my mind, do not always possess the same quality of abilities as do those at these service organizations.

At that moment, in that board meeting, I decided to take a stand. I want to pay what a job is worth, not what a well-meaning woman is willing to accept for the work she does. I want to provide health care. I want to provide benefits befitting of some of the most important work taking place on the planet. I want Empower Her Network to lead the way and ask others to join us in addressing this issue.

It was presented that the foundations we covet, and who are responding so positively to our mission, have implied standards that ask for a 20 percent operating-budget expense.

Think about that. Name a successful company in the world that runs their operation with a 20 percent operating budget.

What if we put a summary statement in front of our submissions explaining with numbers why we have to go above that norm to ensure that all women and men working in this most important area have the compensation that they are entitled to? What if we called for the foundations to request a separate list of salaries so they can see the compensation levels and evaluate them with intelligence? Surely foundations can recognize that not-for-profit employees should have the value of what they do reflected in their paychecks. I’m not asking for bonuses the likes of that of Sheryl Sandberg, for God’s sake. I’m saying that someone with an MSW, doing the difficult work of supporting someone coming back from something most can’t overcome, should make more than $30 per hour without mileage.

If the not-for-profit arena was staffed predominately by men, we would be talking another ball game. I’m sure of it. In 2011, 75 percent of the staff in nonprofits were women—except (surprise, surprise) executive directors and top management, 65 percent of which are men. Oh, and to really make my case, the 45 percent of top management that are women have significantly lower pay scales.

Look, this might even be our own fault. I can’t tell you the countless times I’ve given my business acumen away because the person seemed to not be able to pay our fees—always to the detriment of my company, my team, and my bottom line.

So, I put this out there for consideration. Maybe it starts at the foundation level, where we intend to make our case. Maybe it starts at the board of directors level at nonprofits. Maybe it just starts with people looking at the issue and recognizing that it needs to be addressed.

Empower Her Network seeks to be the behind-the-scenes leg up women need to make their own way in a new world they are just joining. We will fight for them. We are now going to fight for those fighting for them. So many challenges, so worth the trouble.

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