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  • Pat Libby

Us Versus Them: Fair Labor Battles in the Nonprofit Workplace

Reading about the contentious and belabored labor negotiations between union and management at the Southern Poverty Law Center broke my heart.

And the ugliness of it all raised so many questions:

  • How did an iconic civil-rights champion end-up in a mud-slinging battle with its own staff?

  • How have countless other prominent nonprofits ended up in the same boat?

  • Why is unionization of nonprofit staff sweeping much of the nation?

There are, as in most cases, two sides to this very sad story.

One side is the well-documented, well-worn, and misguided vow-of-poverty ethic that has pervaded nonprofit culture for far too long. Nonprofit staff (with the general exception of those at the very top) are expected to work for below market compensation because they have the honor of serving others.

This practice exists throughout the nonprofit sector but is somehow worse when the organization is dedicated to serving vulnerable people and its stinginess affects the quality of life of its own staff.

Poor compensation leads to predictable results:

  • A workforce that is limited to people who are crazy dedicated, have manageable student debt, and/or have income support from a partner or family.

  • A workforce that is less diverse, not reflective of society and the communities’ nonprofits serve.

  • Burnout and resentment which results in high staff turnover.

  • Frustrated managers on a hamster wheel of continually recruiting, hiring and training replacement staff.

  • Lagging program outcomes and poor service delivery due to staff turnover and underperformance (it’s hard to concentrate on work when you’re worried about paying your bills).

Nonprofit leaders and funders of all types have fed this narrative since the beginning of time – sacrificing good quality/good paying jobs on the altar of serving the mission. Frankly, there is no reason we can’t have both!

But before I describe how managers and board members can work to establish fair labor practices at their organizations – which to be clear, should be a priority for every nonprofit on the planet and addressed BEFORE staff become so disgruntled, they organize a union – I want to talk about the other side of the coin.

When staff members enter into labor negotiations declaring “We don’t apologize for being combative,” and demand more than 100 paid days of time-off per year, they’re not entering those discussions with an open heart and an open mind. Lately too, I’ve seen way too many nonprofits with direct service staff who won’t come back to the office on a regular basis when it is apparent that remote work won’t fully meet the needs of clients.

This take-no-prisoners approach is not only disrespectful of the organization’s leaders, it is disrespectful of the ideals upon which the organization was established – ideals that sought to advance work that addresses the greater good.

Nonprofits aren’t Starbucks, Amazon or any other major corporation. They are, by their very nature, organizations that are formed to serve a public good that for all practical reasons, cannot happen in a for-profit marketplace.

Nonprofit leaders and Board members should never hide behind mission to exploit workers. At the same time workers should realize that the specialness of their jobs is tied to a higher purpose.

So, how do organizations create a fair and harmonious workplace?

A. By working proactively with the Board to create a compensation structure that respects the worth of ALL staff (not just the ones at the top). This involves developing policies that commit to:

  1. ALL staff earning at least a living wage. Paying decently ensures that staff can concentrate on ONE job – yours – and not dilute their energy with gig work. Fair pay at all levels will decrease turnover – saving your organization the time, money, and aggravation that comes with hiring and training replacement staff. It will also ensure continuity of quality program outcomes.

  2. All staff having good vacation benefits, access to health plans, and a way to contribute to a retirement fund (which is required by law in California for organizations employing at least 5 people).

Recently I’ve been shocked by discussions I’ve had with several different nonprofit boards about expanding vacation benefits for staff – in one case, a battle royale to expand benefits from one week to two for staff who had been employed at the organization for 6 years! The argument I hear repeatedly is that it will cost too much which doesn’t fly by any stretch of the imagination.

Study after study has shown “that taking time away from the job can have physical and mental health benefits. People who take vacations have lower stress, less risk of heart disease, a better outlook on life, and more motivation to achieve goals.” Your staff need time to refresh and recharge. Trust me, their colleagues will be happy to take on extra work to fill the gaps when they know they’ll be offered the same support when their time comes.

B. By developing an income strategy and timeline for activating your compensation plan.

If your nonprofit is committed to paying better, it needs to figure out an income strategy that allows your organization to make that happen. This will likely involve:

  1. Making use of your own endowment and reserve funds! I’ve seen waaaaaaaaaaaaaay too many Boards whine and complain about their inability to provide staff with decent salary and benefits while they sit on good-sized endowments! This penny-pinching makes me boil because THE most valuable asset an organization has is its staff! While I’m a big fan of saving for a rainy day and for the future (and am not ignorant about the gyrations of the stock market), I am a bigger fan of taking care of the beating heart of the organization. Please, please, please have serious conversations with your board on this topic.

  2. Talking with donors about the true costs of operating your programs. These will be difficult conversations to have, however, sharing materials like these from The Bridgespan Group should help.

  3. Having difficult conversations with legislators and public agency administrators about your ACTUAL OPERATING COSTS and urging them to both increase contract amounts to reflect fair wages and to advocate for real change.

  4. Making sure you have soft money from individual donors, members, and special events that you can use to fill in the gaps.

  5. If need be, talking with your community foundation, county government, and others about establishing zero interest bridge-loans to bridge signed contracts (which will ease your cashflow).

C. By being transparent with staff about all of the above.

If you read this blog and think it’s a good reflection of the less than stellar practices at your own organization, the time to get started on making these changes is NOW. Let the staff know that the leadership is committed to working on these issues and provide them with a clear timeline for implementation. Have discussions with staff about their needs – there may be low-hanging fruit that can be quickly addressed while the more complicated issues get sorted out.

If you have already addressed these issues, congratulations! You’re ahead of the pack. If you haven’t, make this the top agenda item on your nonprofit’s “to do” list for 2023.



Pat Libby is a change management consultant working principally with nonprofit corporations. She is author of The Empowered Citizens Guide: 10 Steps to Passing a Law that Matters to You, Oxford University Press, The Lobbying Strategy Handbook, second edition, Oxford University Press, and Cases in Nonprofit Management, SAGE. She has served as an academic, senior executive, board member, and consultant to innumerable nonprofit organizations and foundations for more than three decades.

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