Dear Nonprofiteer, Who’s really to blame for bogus job descriptions and pathetic salaries?

Dear Nonprofiteer,

I was hoping you might be willing to follow up on your last post on your blog because I felt it was incredibly powerful. I hope it is being reblogged and reposted as much as it should.

What does a professional do when they see a job that sounds amazing but the salary is lowballed? Do you address it in a cover letter, if they gave an insultingly low number outright in the job description? What about when it sounds great and you get an interview and they make an offer and it is $15K less than what’s in line with the position? I know anyone can just simply decline, which I’ve done myself.

But I feel like leaders in the sector have a duty to say something, to help move towards realigning expectations of founders and staff who offer insultingly low pay, especially for organizations that offer critical services that honestly won’t select themselves out of the sector. What are your thoughts on this?

It doesn’t seem like we’re at a transparency point in the sector where we can say, “If you want the best candidate for the position you have to pay competitive wages, if you want the fourth or fifth best or most desperate candidate, you can get away with what you’re offering.”

Of course, I feel particularly stung after two painful lowball offers in the past four months that I’ve had to turn down, but that’s sort of beside the point. I never realized that this was such a pervasive problem. It seems especially bad in Chicago, for whatever reason, compared with my compatriots in DC, SF, and Seattle.

Sincerely, Looking at the Bigger Picture

Dear Looking,

The Nonprofiteer understands there to be two parts to your question.  The first is, “What is a professional to do when faced with an unacceptably low salary offer?”   The answer to this is that you have nothing to lose (but your chains) by responding—in person or in writing—“I realize you may not be as familiar with the nonprofit job market as I am, given that your agency only looks for an Executive Director once every many years; but the amount you’re offering isn’t suitable to the position you’ve described.  The range is more like [and then cite the minimum you’d accept and the maximum you can really envision].”  There are only two possible answers to this: “Well, we don’t have that kind of money and don’t intend to get it,” in which case you know you’re dealing with a Board of Directors you wouldn’t be able to manage anyway; or “Oh, really?  Well, is there any way we can make this work?” in which case you’re suddenly negotiating.

There’s no need to say, or even think, that an offer is insulting: if you can’t assume good faith on the part of agencies, at least recall that they derive no benefit from insulting prospective employees.  Though it feels otherwise, no one is commenting on your qualifications by offering you a low salary.  They’re simply hoping they can get someone great for cheap, which if you think about it is the entire nonprofit model.  So consider yourself someone whose first task is to educate your prospective employer about how things ought to work.  Again, if the employer is uninterested in that education, good riddance to bad rubbish; whereas if it’s interested, you may actually be able to get to ‘yes.’

But your second question is of much broader application: What would it take for the sector to begin to offer wages that are appropriate to the skill level being sought?  And the answer to that, as to most questions about how to fix nonprofits, is ‘more money and more understanding from big institutional funders.’  As long as foundations and social venture capitalists pound the drum for a strict ceiling on administrative expenses, nonprofits will continue to skimp on paying for talent.  The people with money are the thought leaders in the sector (isn’t that always the way?), and they’ve made it acceptable to answer reasonable salary demands with the enraging, “Well, no one goes into nonprofit work to get rich.”

Take a look at Watkins Uiberall’s excellent comparative compensation survey from 2010.  Though it’s from Tennessee and from two years ago, it will provide a basis for conversation about what’s appropriate for many jobs in the sector.  As data like these are spread (including by prospective employees), employers will come to understand the way things really work, vs. their fantasy of hiring President Obama for a community organizer’s stipend.

Nonprofit Boards, meanwhile, should consider the non-trivial possibility that shorting their employees on salary and benefits will ultimately lead to a unionization drive.  The Nonprofiteer is a union girl herself, but most Boards of Directors and nonprofit managers don’t agree.  So somewhere in any conversation about salaries one might gently slide in the question, “If your pay scale is so low, how do you avoid the unions?”  You won’t get an answer but you’ll be providing food for thought, and the longer employers chew on it the less chintzy they’ll be.

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One Response to “Dear Nonprofiteer, Who’s really to blame for bogus job descriptions and pathetic salaries?”

  1. QUESTION WEDNESDAY! - Unemployblog Says:

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