November 05, 2019

pov: Are You Salary Savvy?

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about salaries. Specifically the relationship that salaries have with how we define our worth and the necessity they play in our ability to live.

I have distinct memories of salary conversations I’ve had with all of my prior supervisors. I remember being forced into taking additional responsibilities without added compensation. I remember being told that, regardless of my excellent performance, I didn’t qualify for a raise because I wasn’t married and didn’t have children. I remember crying every day when I got home because I was so unhappy at work but I felt guilty about thinking about quitting because I was making a wage that was higher than the wage that my parents had made at my age.

Not all of my salary stories are horrific and demeaning. I remember the day I got a $17,000 a year pay increase (the day I became UNA’s CEO). I also remember interviewing for an entry level position and my future boss offering me a middle management position instead, complete with appropriate pay.

I believe that there is a direct correlation between wages and job performance. Think about this – if an employee is making a low wage and is barely making ends meet (or not) then that employee is likely to spend the vast majority of their waking hours worried and uncertain. For the employer, this means you have an employee that is not able to fully concentrate on their job. In the nonprofit sector this means our clients and our staff may be equally in crisis.

This cycle of inadequate wages in the nonprofit sector needs to shift. I understand that there are many factors at play and in most cases nonprofit executives are at the mercy of our funders. And I will admit that it’s hard to reconcile what you want your organizational budget to be versus what funders are willing to pay for. However, as nonprofit executives it begins with us.

There are three major steps that we can take to begin to have healthier conversations about salaries in the nonprofit sector.

  1. Be equipped with the salary and benefit comps in your area. Having access to the data is half the battle. UNA partners with Columbia Books every two years to produce a compensation and benefits study with this data. Information on the most recent study can be found here.
  2. Review your own organization’s salaries and benefits then compare that data with the compensation and benefits study. Be sure to make note of the job descriptions in both.
  3. Make a plan to equalize and correct salaries so that your employees can be paid a wage that is commensurate with the duties of their job and in line with what others are making in the Utah market.

Correcting and equalizing salaries is not easy, it takes time and there are mistakes to be made. And I assure you, you will make them. I always imagined that when I became the person who controlled the budget I would make great decisions on salaries and everyone would be happy and paid well. And then I became a nonprofit executive and I stumbled.

I have been through four budget cycles at UNA so far. Our revenue has grown over those four years by 19% and it’s true that I have added staff. Up two part-time employees combined with the three full-timers we’ve always had. But as I reflect on the historical budget data I am horrified. The very first budget I made in 2016, I allocated $166,000 for salaries. In 2017 and 2018 I allocated $155,000. And in 2019 I have allocated $198,000 in salaries. I decreased in Year Two and didn’t even plan for an increase in Year Three. [Personal eye roll occurring right now.]

This is what I mean about making mistakes. I had access to all the data and the research about why we should pay people more and how we can do it but I didn’t implement it. I am pretty sure it was a combination of not feeling empowered, not understanding, and not knowing how to do it. Needless to say it’s been an evolution of my own skill set and I am now acutely aware of the skills of my team and the output I expect of them. I don’t pretend to have it all figured out. I am still in the process of making corrections to the budget and job descriptions and figuring out how I can provide cost of living adjustments and merit based raises between my full-time salaried staff and my part-time hourly staff; because percent increases don’t seem to be equitable given the different wage structures.

There are so many levers that are involved in budget planning and this is only a small portion. So I don’t mean to minimize it or make it seem elementary because I know how hard it is to raise money for your mission. I also know the pain that is associated with a decrease in funding or the loss of a grant. I simply want us to raise the bar and begin paying people in our sector a fair and equitable wage for the work we are asking them to do.

Overall I don’t pretend to forgive all of my prior supervisors for their mistakes nor do I expect those who have reported to me over the years to forgive me for the barriers I have created. But because I know that wages are tied to job performance, I promise to keep that top of mind as I think through future budgets. And honestly that, at its basic level, is all I am asking of each of you.

For some useful information about nonprofit wages for funders and nonprofits please visit Fund the People’s website.

Kate Rubalcava
Utah Nonprofits Association