Worker Self-Directed Nonprofits: Why Equitable Pay is Crucial to Our Mission

Sarah Green

Historically, those drawn to work in the non-profit sector are people who are passionate about social justice. Many times, the people dedicated to righting the wrongs of systemic injustices are the very people who have experienced the negative impact of those injustices in their own lives.

The work done by social service and humanitarian organizations is crucially important to bettering our communities and society. However, because of the constant struggle for funding and the traditional power hierarchies which persist within these organizations, employees in this sector tend to accept incredibly low wages, simply because of their passion for the work. The cycle that leads to burnout more often than not is the persistence of these conditions: underpaid staff are asked to do more than is possible with the little resources available, while working with consistent trauma and difficult to manage populations. A person with a heart to help others may enter this field and very quickly find themselves consumed by their work, all the while struggling to pay their bills and maintain their own mental health. For BIPOC individuals in the social service field, these harmful work conditions compound generations of marginalization and lack of opportunity, creating a situation where non-profits actually perpetuate the ills they initially set out to fix.

Imagine a non-profit working in the Restorative Justice field. The organization has an Executive Director, who makes the most money, then middle managers, then staff, then assistants, who make the least. This organization says that it is their mission to provide employment opportunities for individuals returning from prison. In order to be able to hire returning individuals, they create part-time, assistant level positions. This feels a lot like charity—I’m “giving you” this job—and creates a dynamic where someone with a record will continue to feel lesser-than, and will be required to do whatever the manager asks. The pay is low and the stress is high, and there is not much incentive for that person to stay on; chances of recidivism are high.

Now imagine a different non-profit, also in the Restorative Justice field. This organization is run by a team of peers, who all have slightly different roles, but who all have an equal say in the direction and decision-making of the organization. Most importantly, they all have equal pay. Members of this team have a sense of ownership of the work being done because of the understanding that everyone is valuable, everyone’s input matters, and everyone is being compensated for the effort they are putting in. In this organization, an individual returning from prison has a chance to feel empowered, to feel that they have control over their own lives, and that they are a willing and equal partner in helping a community who, like themselves, has been impacted by mass incarceration.

The first example is a typical, traditionally structured non-profit. Most non-profits you run across function this way. The second example is called a worker self-directed non-profit. According to the Sustainable Economies Law Center’s research, “distributing leadership throughout an organization can create organizations that are more effective at advancing their mission, more adaptable and responsive to complex systems, more accountable to their communities, and more equitable and fun places to work”. 

At Delaware Pacem in Terris, we strive to embody the principles that we believe are needed to heal our communities. Bringing on neighbors to be part of the team, having leadership who can direct our work from the perspective of their own lived experiences, and paying these community members a wage that can actually support themselves and their families is our most important priority in developing our staff. Through these practices, we can create a healthy and empowering culture within our organization, inspiring our community to work alongside us as we restore our neighborhoods and seek to address the many historic injustices that continue to be obstacles for BIPOC populations.

Our staff is already operating through a more democratic, team-oriented structure than a typical non-profit; however, we have not yet implemented the practice of equal pay. To lower the Executive Director’s salary and raise the salaries of the other three employees to a meaningful, livable compensation level, it will cost our organization roughly $25,000 for the year. When we bring on another team member, that will add a minimum of another $25,000. Although funds are always in demand and never easy to find, $50,000 is a relatively low input compared to the value it will add to our work and impact. Without equitable pay, without disrupting the unjust concentration of wealth and power in society, non-profits have a lesser chance of achieving real and lasting impact in historically marginalized communities. With an organization run by and for the community we serve, there is an incredibly bright and hopeful future on the horizon.

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