Category Archives: Employees

Grant Writing 101: General Tips

I am always surprised how intimidated people are by grant writing, which nonprofit culture has elevated to an unjustifiably lofty status. But I am astonished by the amount of money that organizations shell out for grant writers, most of whom I place one notch above snake oil salespeople. To me, the difference between grant fearers and those who call themselves “grant writers” is that the latter said during an a-ha moment: “Oh, geez. I can do this.”

As I hope this series shows, grant writing is not an insurmountable task that must be outsourced for an arm and a leg. Yes, it is a craft that takes knowledge and finesse to perfect, it’s not – as my grandfather would say – brain science. It doesn’t require a Ph.D. or expensive trainings or some arbitrary certification. It just requires patience, practice, and paying attention. If I were perkier, I might call those the 3 Ps. But I’m not.

Here are 5 failsafe steps for writing a good grant:

Step 1: Follow instructions.

Steps 2-5: See Step 1.

Most of the mistakes in grant applications are not the quality of writing but failure to follow instructions. This series addresses some of the challenges and questions people encounter during the process of writing a grant. How do you manage the relationship with the funder? How do you create a budget? How do I know if I should apply for a grant?

Today, I kick things off with a few general tips that I have amassed through my own trials and errors as well as conversations with seasoned grant writers, nonprofit staff, and foundations’ program officers. Feel free to leave your own tips as well.

Research the grant. How much money do they dole out? What kinds of organizations or programs have they funded in the past? What guidelines will you need to follow if you receive the money? And so on. Tailor your application accordingly. Don’t lie. Don’t stretch the truth. Just know what buttons the granting agency has and push them. Grants are not one-size-fits-all.

That said, if it doesn’t fit, you must acquit. A good strategy for the O.J. defense, and a good strategy for grants. Don’t make the mistake of what people call “chasing money:” finding a grant and tweaking or adding programs to fit its guidelines. Barring exceptional circumstances, grants should fund existing programs; not the other way around. I understand the temptation to add dance lessons to your after school program so you are eligible for a $50,000 grant from Dancing with the Stars Foundation. Don’t do it! Money chasing overburdens staff, derails carefully laid strategic plans, and erodes your mission. Take a pass and either keep researching grants or focus your time and energy on another type of fundraising (more about that another day).

When you do apply, do not under any circumstances provide more [redacted] than they require. This is probably the most common and most egregious error that grant applicants make. It is also the easiest to correct. Look, grantors have thought long and hard about their time and energy constraints. They want to compare the same information across all applications and simply do not have the bandwidth to read 40 annual reports or 60 full audits. So, even if you have the most moving client testimonials, and the last person who read them needed a tear duct transplant because it made them cry so much, leave it out. If you are in a photo finish with another organization, they will ask you for additional materials.

Stick to page lengths. Again, the grantor has carefully considered how much information you can cram into 2 pages. They want you to whittle down your pitch so it is pithy and concise. However. I should also say that a grant application should not be grossly under the page limit either. Do your due diligence. Give the people what they want.

You need a Red Team. At two important stages, people other than the grant writer need to look at the grant application in its entirety:

  1. Revising. While revisers may note a misplaced comma or subject/verb disagreement, their primary focus is content and structure. Does it flow? Does it respond to the prompts? Does it adequately capture the essence of your organization despite the completely unreasonable page limits? You should leave enough time for a total rewrite, if necessary. Ideally, find an external reviser who simulates the naïveté of your eventual audience. Find someone who is smart, perceptive, and free to criticize, but unfamiliar with the organization’s taken-for-granted, internal jargon. Spouses are great for this. Sorry, honey.
  2. Proofreading. Now someone – preferably 2-3 someones – should look at grammar, punctuation, formatting, and so on. Grant applications should be completely free of typos and other errors. Yes, completely. As in 100%.

If you have a question, ask. Granting agencies are run by regular humans, not by the Queen’s Guard. Of course, make sure the answer isn’t as clear as day in the application materials or their website. (More on this later.)

Spread the word. Tell your board and staff that you are applying for this grant. Funders enjoy feeling like their grants are “big deals.” If board members run into the program officer at a meeting, they should put in a good word for you.

Last but not least, the granting agency wants to give out money. That is their whole job. They are looking for reasons to give you money, not reasons not to give you money. (Apologies to my 7th grade English teacher, Mrs. Graham, for the double negative.) Stop giving them reasons not to give you money.

Next up: relationships in grant writing!

Leave. They’re going to be ok.

donut

Working in nonprofits, sometimes our relationship to the organization takes on a familial dynamic. It’s like our loudmouth cousin whose personal drama always finds a way to eclipse otherwise jovial holiday gatherings. It’s like our toddler who depends solely on us for care, which often comes at enormous cost to our own well-being. This post is about recognizing that unlike our families – whom we must love through thick and thin, despite their flaws, or simply tolerate a few times a year – we get to choose we where we work.

I know that working in nonprofits, emotions can be raw as we blur the lines between our public and private lives – sometimes willingly, sometimes not. I know from personal experience the joy that can come from being a part of something I believe in. I am not here to critique those of us who invest our innermost selves in our work. Today, I am talking about the times when our giant aerosol can of love is no longer shellacking our work with happiness. For whatever reason, the job has become untenable, and we recognize that it is time to move on. Maybe the decision is at the forefront of our thoughts, maybe it is just rolling around like an empty Diet Coke can in the back seat of a car. But it’s there, asking to be dealt with.

What stops us when we know we should leave?  Most times, the answer is loyalty – to the organization, to coworkers, and especially to the clients. Far from criticizing this loyalty, I am writing today to acknowledge its existence and say, simply: Go. They’re going to be ok.

For the sake of discussion, let’s call this phenomenon “obligatory staying:” staying when we know we should leave; staying at the cost of our careers or our sanity. Stereotypically, obligatory staying is associated with high-ranking, founding executive directors who view themselves as the “face” of an organization and worry it will collapse like a Jenga tower when they extract themselves from the precarious structure. But I have found obligatory staying has shape not unlike Medicare: in addition to affecting those at the very top, lower-ranking front line employees also stick like sprinkles to the organizational donut with the cloying icing of loyalty. Mid-level folks, especially those with highly professionalized administrative jobs, pass through the middle much more easily and freely, perhaps due to marketability, experience, or emotional divestment.

I speak from experience as a former low-ranking, front liner. My first full-time job in a nonprofit was the perfect storm of 1) 22-year-old naiveté, 2) organizational nascence, and 3) general starry-eyed nonprofit romanticism. A recent college graduate, I strictly adhered to the the Great Job Lie Rule. Put simply, upon graduation everyone enters a social contract to promote the idea that they are Doing Well and So Pleased with Their Life Choices, despite the fact that post-graduation jobs are universally terrible. So, mentally, I was committed to this being the Greatest Job on Earth even though sometimes I went in the supply room, closed the door, and whispered loudly: “I quit!” So there was that.

Second, I was not working for just any nonprofit, naturally, but a rip-the-price-tag-off-the-office-chair-and-create-a-fax-cover-sheet-on-day-one startup. My “passion” for this organization gelled to an obsidian-like hardness that lasted the better part of 6 years. My psyche was more or less impenetrable to the exploitation and general pathos that I encountered on a daily basis. We just need to transition into a period of stability and growth, I told myself, as I talked about the organization with evangelical zeal that would make Billy Graham look like an agnostic.

It may have been the second tidal wave of staff turnover. It may have been watching my friends buy new couches or – eventually – new houses while I carefully squirreled away a pittance towards “the future,” which was a terrifying prospect as I barreled toward 30. It may have been starting a Master’s program at night and catching a glimpse of Reba McEntire-style “Life out There.” Suffice to say, the work I was doing, and the organization that I was doing it in, lost its shine. I stopped convincing those around me – and myself – that things were ok, that the job was the Best Ever. Yet, I stayed. It was like the 7th month in what really should have been a 6 month relationship. I knew I needed to break it off, but I didn’t know how.

What I felt was no longer passion but a deep-seated feeling of obligation that I can only liken to a sanguineous, familial tie. I felt needed. I held a bolus of information in my brain that I could neither digest nor regurgitate to someone else. I knew how to “care for” the organization in a way no one else could. I knew how to run the high-stakes enrollment for the popular summer camp so that it was fair and diplomatic. I knew that a City Councilwoman would call every year at the last minute and expect for her daughter to be admitted. I knew to comply, even if we had a waiting list. I knew that my coworker Brenda got bent out of shape every 3 months about Something Small that represented Something Big and only a long lunch over Pad Thai would bring her back to normal. Sure, individually, the minutiae I did every day held very little consequence for the big picture, but I was like a big wad of chewing gum that rolled around the organization picking up all the small pieces and holding them together. It wasn’t egotism; it was the catch-22 of knowing I was both essential and unimportant to the organization.

Eventually, I left. It was like the steamroller scene from Austin Powers. I think I gave 5 months’ notice, from the time my first acceptance letter to graduate school arrived. I made exhaustive chronological lists of instructions. I met with people and bored them to tears with the details of what I was handing off. And at the end of the day, the organization did change upon my departure. Things fell through the cracks, but eventually someone stuck a piece of tape on the end of a pencil and wiggled it around until they finally picked it up again. The organization was fine. I missed people. I emailed them. I met them for coffee. Some relationships fell by the wayside, others transitioned into friendships. I got maybe one or two frantic phone calls, but not many. After a while, I felt thankful for the time that I worked there, proud of the things I accomplished, and above all glad that the organization ran without me now.

There is nothing wrong with getting emotionally involved in our work. There is nothing wrong with strong feelings of loyalty toward our clients, coworkers, or the organization. But we should be careful where we file away these emotions in our brains. They should not go next to “Mom” and “Dad” and “Grandpa Earl.” They should go in “work” and “career” and “self-fulfillment.” Because unlike Mom and Dad and Grandpa Earl who we are obligated to see from time to time, we do choose which job we love. Sometimes the most loyal thing we can do is come up with an exit strategy and move on. Because we have a responsibility to be loyal to ourselves, too, and again, they’re going to be ok.

Words that Need to Go away: Leverage

Leverage,* noun 1. the exertion of force by means of a lever or an object used in the manner of a lever. 2. the ratio of a company’s loan capital (debt) to the value of its common stock (equity). 3. A television show on FX starring Timothy Hutton. Verb 1. use borrowed capital for (an investment), expecting the profits made to be greater than the interest payable. 2. use (something) to maximum advantage. (Definition courtesy of Wikipedia except for the bit about Timothy Hutton.)

*In full disclosure, I hate the word “leverage” with the white-hot passion of a thousand suns, and I have not seen a single episode of Leverage the TV show. Now that’s off  my chest, let’s proceed.

Take a minute to absorb these definitions. One refers to a basic type of machine that we all learned about in fourth grade science class. A lever is something cave people used to move rocks up a hill. It’s something the bad guys pull in action movies to blow up buildings. Not a great metaphor for nonprofits, folks.

Two of these five definitions refer to money, specifically turning money into more money. While business rhetoric sometimes helps us think through aspects of nonprofits, we should resist borrowing buzz words from the business world just because we think they sound impressive. (Do not get me started on all the “synergizing” of the mid-2000s. It still turns my stomach.)

So, this just leaves the fourth definition: “use (something) to maximum advantage.” Ok. So, that’s not horrible. It’s just really, really vague and un-creative. Why use one word to describe virtually every type of relationship possible in nonprofits? A social media presence is being leveraged for neighborhood buy-in. Neighborhood buy-in is leveraging volunteer hours. Volunteer hours are being leveraged for Federal grants. Federal grants are being leveraged for corporate sponsorships. Corporate sponsorships are being leveraged for individual donations. And so on to infinity until the snake eats its own tail.

I do not understand what “leverage” means half the time. When I see this word, I automatically assume that the author just did not have time to properly articulate the relationship between X and Y. I roll my eyes as far as they will go back in my head and ask: How are the two things you said actually related? Has a foundation said that they will give you a $10,000 grant if you raise $5,000 in private donations? Then say that. Are you applying for a large Federal grant and you want to show that you have a lot of neighborhood support by the number of “likes” on your Facebook page? Then say that. Are you trying to show new clients that people like them are using your services? Then say that!

The only time I want to hear the word “leverage” again is if someone is telling me that I should binge watch the TV show. Speaking of which, is it any good?

Money Talk: Raises

Asking for a raise is difficult for almost everyone. While such conversations may be uncomfortable and hard to navigate, it’s part of being a worker in our lovely capitalist society. It’s perfectly normal. It’s OK. It’s not selfish or greedy or manipulative. It doesn’t mean you aren’t a team player or you don’t believe in the mission. In fact, it means that you are committed to the job and want it to be viable for you long-term. 

Keep in mind, too, that raises do not always have to be financial. You have more chips with which to bargain than money. Do you want more time off? A flexible schedule? Greater influence in organizational direction? Knowing how, when, and under what conditions to ask for a raise is an art. Here are some times when it is appropriate to ask for a raise:

When you take on more work. Makes sense, right? More work, more pay. So why do we take on more responsibility for the same amount of money? More times than I can count, I have simply muttered “OK” and shoveled stuff around on my already full plate to make room for a “new opportunity.” Little did I know I would soon be eating the poisonous fruit of bitterness and resentment. I should have said: “Oh, I would love to take this on. It sounds like it will take me a few extra hours each week to finish this task. Could you adjust my salary to include this new responsibility?” Or, if I did not think a pay raise was possible: “I am happy to pitch in and supervise the programming on Saturday afternoons. To make sure I have the time I need to re-charge my batteries, would it be OK if I came in at noon on Mondays?”

When someone leaves and you have to take over his or her duties. If you have worked at a nonprofit for any period of time, you know how fluid job descriptions can be. A common practice that drives me insane is the classic bait and switch when someone leaves an organization. For example, Sally, one of three program managers, quits to grow apples in Vermont. The other two program managers, Joe and Berta cover her duties until she can be replaced. Weeks go by, then months. The ED sees that the organization is not imploding without Sally and postpones hiring someone new. Meanwhile, Joe and Berta are each doing 50% more work for the same pay and burning out. Berta has placed calls to another nonprofit to see if they have any openings. Wait, Berta! Try these options: 1) pester your boss about replacing Sally, making the burden of her absence known 2) since Sally’s leaving left a financial surplus, ask to re-negotiate your job description and salary formally include Sally’s responsibilities or 3) ask for a piece of Sally’s salary until her replacement is hired. Option #1 might work, depending on your relationship with your boss, but options #2 and #3 create a direct financial incentive for supervisors to take action.

Every year. Your employer offered you a salary when you started working. Presumably, this salary was appropriate for your set of skills, your experience, the city where you live, the economy, and the market at the time. But every year, our economy changes. Independent of your performance as an employee, you should receive a cost of living increase that keeps up with the rate of inflation – roughly 3% a year. This is less of a raise and more of an adjustment that keeps your salary at its baseline. Think of it like this: if youdon’t get a raise every year to cover cost of living increases, you are getting an annual pay cut. Employers make commitments to pay employees a certain amount of money and they should maintain these promises. Don’t make me draw you a line graph.

Every year.[1] Just as cost of living increases every year, you also gain another year of valuable, job-specific experience. Your market value increases. Too often in nonprofits, we do not receive the recognition for our growth within our jobs, which is why our industry has astonishing rates of turnover: employees leave their jobs to find proper recognition elsewhere. Such job hopping is usually bad all around. It destabilizes programming, squashes organizational continuity, and can be a difficult adjustment for everyone involved. Good managers recognize the importance of retaining hardworking, dedicated people at every level in the organization. In order to retain you, your employer should recognize that you are more valuable each year. Unlike cost of living raises, performance raises are not automatic. You must be doing a good job!

When you get a promotion or a new title. Again, Captain Obvious, right? Unfortunately, what sometimes happens is this: an organization needs someone to do more work or step into a different (usually higher-up) position but they don’t have the money to pay for a higher salary. They entice a lower-paid employee with a new title or a “promotion” and a vague promise of increased pay down the road. No. All getting a new title does is give you greater bargaining power for your next job (which is undercut by your low salary anyway). Any supervisor who wants to keep you long-term will recognize that Spider-man was right: with greater power comes greater pay. You can show a little flexibility about when the raise goes into effect if you feel generous, just get the date in writing. Otherwise, just politely say that you enjoy your job as it is.

When an organization has had a lot of turmoil. I have been through several mass exoduses (exodi?) in nonprofits. For example, a beloved executive director leaves and within 6 months, half the staff follows her out the door. If you are still standing after this happens, your stock has gone way, way up. You may not realize it yet, but you possess a valuable commodity: institutional history. Knowledge you take for granted has now become scarce. Maybe you know how to run the accounting software. Maybe you know where the paper clips are stored. You are in an excellent position to ask for a raise. Make your value known. Keep a running total in your head of all the times you should have gotten a raise over the last few years and ask for your worth. Plus, the budget should look pretty flush without half the staff, right? Chances are, higher-ups will be eager to keep you happy.

 

 

[1] Performance-based raises and cost of living raises are not the same thing although many employers either pawn them off as the same thing or roll them together.

Money Talk: Red Flags

Photo: Jeremy T. Hetzel

Photo: Jeremy T. Hetzel

Just as every job has rewards, every job has risks. Nonprofit jobs are certainly no exception. Figuring out what the risks are can be difficult. Here are 4 places you might find red flags:

Unstable budget. Nonprofits receive funding from a variety of sources: individual donors, foundations, government agencies, and so on. While many organizations have stable, reliable financing, many do not. Funding streams are linked precariously to external factors that have nothing to do with how well a program is doing: personal relationships, the stock market, even Congress. In my opinion, a prospective employer has an ethical obligation to tell you if your job has an expiration date. Ask how your salary will be funded and whether they believe this is a long-term job opportunity.

Vague job descriptions. I probably should not have to say this, but I will anyway: you should not take a job without seeing a job description, especially in a nonprofit where duties and responsibilities can be very fluid. When you receive the job description, read it carefully. Ask if you can take it home to look it over. Does it match the conversations you’ve had with the staff about your job? Think about the title you will have. Do the responsibilities you read in the job description make sense? Do any duties seem outside the scope? All this may sound tedious, but at one organization for which I worked, every time someone left, we would “revise” the job description willy-nilly. “Oh, we need someone to sort the mail. That never gets done on time,” someone would say, and we’d add it to the list. The job would wind up being a catch-all for the duties no one wanted. The poor newbie would have the title “Program Coordinator of Logistics and Operations” as well as about 30 incoherent daily tasks. Now, vague job descriptions aren’t necessarily a bad thing. You may like having a lot of different duties. You may be excited about the variety. But if something looks out of place, don’t be afraid to ask for clarity.

Other duties as assigned. Every nonprofit job description I’ve seen includes some iteration of “…and other duties as assigned.” Seemingly benign, this clause can be a powerful tool for managers to lord over you, especially if you are salaried rather than hourly. Once I worked for a small nonprofit that offered youth programs after school and on Saturdays. Although part-time staff implemented the programming, a full-time staff member needed to be on site when the building was open. When the person responsible for Saturday coverage complained that he needed more time with his family, our boss brought a calendar to staff meeting and divided Saturdays for the next semester among the three of us. He claimed that this was just part of the “other duties as assigned” to which we agreed in our job descriptions. Since we were salaried, we did not receive any additional pay or time off. Granted, extenuating circumstances arise, and nonprofits, like any workplace, are entitled to ask employees to provide temporary solutions to short-term needs. Reasonable requests include chipping in during the annual fundraising event or filling in for a sick colleague. Dividing up Saturday shifts was a permanent solution, not a “chipping in” scenario. Ask your prospective employer what he or she means by “other duties as assigned.” Ask for some examples of what these other duties might be.

High turnover. Employee retention is an issue for nonprofits across the country. High rates of turnover can lead to program instability and dilute organizational history. It is perfectly reasonable to ask questions about the tenure of the staff. For individual employees, job security and satisfaction are linked to those around you. What if the person who hired you quits? How will you get along with his or her replacement? How long have other staff members have been working for the organization? How long did the last person in your position work for the organization? Depending on how comfortable you are, ask why people leave. The answers to these questions can help you learn more about the organization and your job. Are people working there for six months and getting fed up or burned out? Are you being hired by someone who is on the way out the door? Tread lightly with this one, but do seek the information.

Money Talk: 5 Reasons to Negotiate

You have just accepted a nonprofit job. You are excited. You are nervous. Maybe you desperately need the money, and every bone in your body is telling you to sign the offer letter in front of you so you can be one step closer to a full bank account. The thought of negotiating – of asking for more pay or better benefits – sounds like something high powered executives in the corporate world do, not a program coordinator for a small nonprofit. Put that thought out of your mind. It is just as critical for you to negotiate as it is the CEO of Google. Why?

Photo: jDevaun

Photo: jDevaun

You need the money. Let’s face it, unless you are an independently wealthy heir to a western European throne, we all need money to survive. We need to pay bills, make car payments, buy food, clothing, birthday presents, and chew toys for our dogs. It’s okay to admit that we need money. It doesn’t make us bad people. It doesn’t make us less committed to the mission. It makes us honest people. It makes us better workers. If you are sitting at your desk and worrying about how you will survive until the 30th with $54.78 in the bank, you aren’t thinking about your lesson plan for the 6th graders that afternoon. If you are late to work once a week because you have to stop by Autozone and put extra oil in your car because there is a slow leak from “somewhere in the engine” and you are horrified to take it to a mechanic because you know deep in your soul that it is the alternator, which will cost $400 to replace…ok, you get the point. You aren’t at work when you are supposed to be, doing your job, thinking about your job. Getting paid fairly gives us the stability we need to be good employees. Getting paid fairly keeps us happy and content in our current job and feelings of bitterness and resentment at bay. Resist the urge to see negotiating a higher salary as selfish.

Photo: Steve Berry

Photo: Steve Berry

You need the recognition. Nonprofits are staffed with altruistic people. No one is in it for the money. Great! If money is so meaningless, let’s take the whole budget for salaries, divide it by the number of employees, and all get paid the same? No? That won’t work? Why not? Because as much as we like to believe nonprofits are “different from the real world,” they aren’t. Just like everywhere else in our capitalist society, nonprofits have a pay and prestige hierarchy. You worked hard to acquire your skills and talents through years of work, education, and/or life experiences. Whether you are fundraising, managing budgets, implementing daily programs, or taking out the trash, your employer should recognize the role you play in the organization and pay you appropriately. (We’ll talk another day about how nonprofits should change how they value skills and talents.)

Photo: Mimi Mia Photography

Photo: Mimi Mia Photography

You’ll never be in this position again. Raises – even just 3% cost of living raises – can be hard to come by in nonprofits. (Don’t get me started on this atrocity.) You should be prepared to live with this salary for several years to come, keeping in mind that life can change quickly. When I took my first nonprofit job, I was 22 years old, just out of college, had a roommate, no car payment, and happily ate scrambled eggs for seven out of ten meals. My $23,000 salary sounded like a windfall. Five years later, I had my own place, my 1996 Toyota Corolla went to the great car dealership in the sky, and my friends who were once content with a burger and a Bud Light were now interested in Thai, Sauvignon Blanc, and weekend trips to New Orleans. I was lucky my financial duress was limited to declining a few social outings and shopping at TJ Maxx. Around me, my coworkers were trying to raise children, refinancing mortgages, and struggling to pay off student loans and medical bills that sometimes took them to the edge of bankruptcy. Getting paid what you are worth is not greedy. Having extra money each month to put in savings or enjoy life with is not gluttonous. Being financially secure is not a crime. Research what someone in your position and with your credentials gets paid and ask for it.

Photo: taxrebate.org.uk

Photo: taxrebate.org.uk

You are uniquely qualified. Uniquely qualified in this instance refers to a special class of nonprofit employees that are surprisingly common: individuals with experience or knowledge specific to an organization, e.g. former clients whose success reflects the organization’s mission, alumni who can personally attest to the value of a program, or past interns who can hit the ground running. While the job itself may be entry-level, these employees are also symbolically important to the organization. You might be featured as a success story in a local paper or profiled in the annual report. In other words, you may perform duties outside the scope of their job description. It’s for employees in this position to say, “You know, X is a perfectly reasonable salary for someone in this position, but since I have Y qualifications specific to this job, I deserve additional compensation.”

Photo: JasonBrown2013

Photo: JasonBrown2013

They are low-balling you. The 5th and final reason is very simple: you should negotiate because chances are, you are already in negotiations. Back when I was 22 and agreeing to $23,000 a year, I thought – naively – that if this is the salary they offered me, this is what they could pay. I was wrong. Five years later, I was shredding documents and came across the projected budget for the year I was hired. To my astonishment, there was my position – Program Assistant – with a higher number next to it. Not a lot more money – maybe 3% – but an amount that would have made a difference to me that year: a plane ticket home, one month’s rent, a new alternator. I was astonished to realize I had been low-balled. They assumed I was going to counter with a higher number, and essentially I had walked away from money that could have easily been mine.

Money Talk: Introduction

taxcredits.net

Two of my basic beliefs in this life are: 1) everyone should be paid fairly and appropriately for the work that they do and 2) everyone should be able to work 40-ish hours a week and live comfortably. These are not new ideas. Working class Americans spent the better part of the last century fighting for livable wages and humane working conditions. This month, the Senate is voting ontwo executive measures that would address the seemingly intractable pay gap between men and women.

And yet any talk of fair pay, equal pay, and livable pay in nonprofits can elicit strong and sometimes visceral reactions. At a conference recently, I was presenting a paper on nonprofit compensation that encouraged employers who cannot afford to increase employee pay to explore non-monetary forms of compensation, e.g. a flexible schedule, greater influence in decision-making, or more time off. An audience member asked: “Do you think paying nonprofit employees more would diminish their commitment to their jobs?” In other words, will paying employees well encumber the altruistic spirit of nonprofit work? Will they become selfish and money-hungry?

Liz West

Liz West

I understand where these questions originate, even if I find them reprehensible. One, nonprofit work can provide ephemeral rewards that substitute for tangible (monetary) pay. So is the concern here that if nonprofit employees were paid their full monetary value, they would lose their drive for intangible rewards? Show me the data, and we can talk. Otherwise, this causality is speculative and unproven, which makes it dangerous to apply to human life.

I will concede the second argument I have heard: nonprofits and their employees do not have a natural immunity to the corruptible power of money. Corporate America does not have a monopoly on greed. In fact, breezing through 990s online reveals that nonprofits can be just as guilty as corporations of grotesquely overpaying executive directors while front-line employees barely live above the poverty level. But I am far from suggesting here that we uncritically pump money into nonprofits until they become bloated slugs of fiscal excess.

William Warby

William Warby

Rather, I am challenging the notion that employees’ well-being and the organization’s well-being are at odds with one another. They are two halves of the same coin. Personal financial stability can lead to increased motivation and job performance. Getting paid fairly can make employees feel valued and secure. Retaining employees leads to better quality programming, enhances institutional knowledge and history, and is an overall indicator of good organizational health.

For example, my research found that one of the most disruptive activities to nonprofit labor process is what I call processual quitting: the act of searching for jobs, polishing a resume, practicing for the GRE, et cetera. Processual quitting ate up chunks of employees’ time and energy at work and at home. The process of walking to the edge of quitting, usually without actually quitting, restored a sense of power and control to employees who otherwise felt helpless to change their situations. Processual quitting was so common because employees lacked the tools to ask for better pay, more benefits, influence in organizational direction, or whatever their situation lacked.

This special segment I call “Money Talk” has two audiences: supervisors – executive directors, funders, boards – who should consider the real, human consequences of low salaries, especially over time (for employees and organizations); and employees who should view self-advocacy not as greedy or selfish but consistent with and supportive of their love and passion for the organization and its mission.