by Dan D., 8/2/16

I was doing a little research on non-profit hiring and salary practices when I came across this excellent article by Vu Le of the blog Nonprofit With Balls earlier today (do you italicize blog names, put them in quotes, or merely leave them alone? I think italicization looks best, personally). Vu presents several excellent points about fairly compensating non-profit professionals that I think many boards and executive directors should take to heart.

For some reason, I have a thing where I like to scan the comments for opposing viewpoints. I like to see what the other side thinks and their rationale for upholding the status quo. Eventually, I’ll need to get over this tendency, because Internet comment sections are generally troll territory, but I think this ditty by faceless “Fish Newman” (gotta love how brave anonymous Internet contrarians can be) deserves a response:

You need to generate cash (and not project-only cash, core cash) in order to pay people more. Full stop. There’s no skipping this part. This is the same truth in the private sector – most entrepreneurs, freelancers, and immigrants don’t have the luxury of even having a “salary” – but, rather, they take home whatever’s left after expenses.

Yes, like in every sector, there are talented people doing things and not getting paid the average or above to do it. The difference is, in the private sector, everyone’s trained to think about doing things that generate revenue. In a small company, there’s almost no overhead – everyone sells.

In the NFP sector, the overhead is higher – more staff are assigned to non-revenue tasks, which in turn put more pressure on the fundraisers to keep the heat and lights on.

Rather than focus on how NFPs are shooting themselves in the foot, address the revenue question. I can identify nearly $30k in deficits within my organization regarding pay, but I still have the same budget for the year. I could do away with computers, or lights, or not market any of our programs, but that would erode my capacity to raise this money next year.

Your next article should really be on getting blood from a stone – because over and over, I see these articles talking about how we should be spending, and very few on innovative ideas on how we can raise the money to pay people better. “Develop a plan” is no help when that plan is “raise the money” with no idea on how to actually do that.

(the more I read these anonymous comments, the more you see these emotionally charged, clichéd-BS like “Full stop. There’s no skipping this part”. Fish, you’re not a writer for Grey’s Anatomy, are you? Do you really need these cringeworthy, melodramatic stock phrases to highlight your point?)

I’ve worked in the non-profit sector for the majority of the past eight years since graduating college: a few AmeriCorps terms here, some contract work there, plenty of volunteering throughout. Non-profits are often wonderful places to work—you’re given the opportunity to serve a community in need and work with passionate, interesting people who see the world through a compassionate lens. That said, non-profits aren’t without their issues: mission creep, founder’s syndrome, and funding gaps are all serious issues many orgs deal with, and are all factors that contribute to employee dissatisfaction and turnover.

There’s also the issue of downright silly purchasing decisions. I once volunteered for a community radio station that was $100k over budget and in danger of shutting down. Their solution was to cut critical staff and assume volunteers would pick up the slack while they plotted a new path forward. Meanwhile, they insisted on spending money they didn’t have on ridiculously over-priced audio software and “social justice” trainings with questionable ROI. In addition, nearly every suggestion made to improve the station’s programming to gain more listeners (and theoretically more fiscal support) was poo-pooed. It seemed as if half the station’s leadership honestly thought they could compete with NPR, only with a fraction of the money, talent, and leadership.

When it was decided that a new station manager should be hired to right the ship, a headhunter was hired at cost and the person who ended up getting the job was paid to relocate from a tiny market in the Western US. The station in question is located in a top-20 media market; I have a very, very hard time believing there were no qualified candidates in the area who could have been hired without having to chunk out additional cash.

The lesson I learned from this: Many people in charge at non-profits make decisions that are at best short-sighted and at worst monumentally stupid. This NPO wasted thousands of dollars on software that could have been procured for free, useless trainings, and recruiting talent from halfway across the country while it lost talented staff with years of institutional knowledge.

“Fish”, if you’re reading this, while your particular non-profit may be cash-strapped and unable to raise salaries, I guarantee you there are many, many nonprofits that waste money on frivolous expenditures they believe will improve their organizations at the expense of being able to fairly compensate their employees.

That talent is what helps you get funding. Harness your employees’ skills, knowledge, and creative energy, and treat their suggestions for how to improve with respect. You might find they have some good ideas on how to help your organization obtain the money it needs.