Money Talk: Introduction

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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.