3 Practices Non Profits Need to Change if We Want Fair Wages

This week, as has happened before, I got a phone call with one of my favourite questions: do non-profits really have to follow the labour standards act? To translate this question more bluntly: does the law really apply to us?

That question was pretty straightforward to answer (yes, labour law applies to nonprofits), but it is part of a trend that many of us are familiar with: the weird, confusing and frustrating belief in the community sector that because our mission is good, our staff should willingly endure poverty wages, constant overtime, absurd job descriptions, and total instability.

One problem to starting these discussions are attitudes like the one described above — that in the context of doing good, it is simply gauche to talk about being paid.

Conversations about labour practices in non-profits often start with an expectation of exploitation, and confusion about why we would prioritize staff well being. We end up trying to convince groups to meet their basic legal requirements — when, I think, a lot of us are hoping the non-profit sector could “be the change you want to see in the world”, as they say. And of all of the issues around about labour practices, the one about paying people a living wage seems to be the hardest.

One problem to starting these discussions are attitudes like the one described above — that in the context of doing good, it is simply gauche to talk about being paid. The other obvious problem area is that community groups are pretty often cash strapped, relying on unreliable funding, and facing incredible need from their communities. For most non-profits, finding ways to pay people a fair wage is hard.

With that said, here are three of the most common ways we as nonprofits thwart our dreams of paying (and receiving) fair wages.

  1. Setting our expectations low. If you start a program paying your outreach staff minimum wage, in the hopes of increasing it later, you haven’t fixed the problem of fair wages, just postponed it. And unfortunately, we find that it is much harder to convince funders for an increase in wages than it is to establish early on that you believe in paying your staff a wage that keeps them above the poverty line.
  2. Promising More, More, More. We are always asked to do more with less — so much so that we often pre-emptively promise we will over deliver before being asked. This means that in the rare event our funding is increased, we augment our promised output rather than offering staff long overdue raises and indexation. This is a tough one to argue, because this norm is so entrenched in the sector. But here’s the thing: there will always be more to do, and there will never be the ‘perfect moment’ to start paying fair wages. It’s about time we started saying: if you increase our funding, we are not going to increase our offer. Instead, we will pay our staff adequately for the first time in 30 years, which they more than deserve, and which will benefit our organization and our clientele. It’s okay to be clear on your ask and your need. Your staff are worth it.
  3. Not believing we can win. One part of this is believing that funders simply will not fund wages. However, across the sector we see significant discrepancies between wages for similar work. Funders don’t set baseline salaries, you do.

What are the barriers in you organization to paying fair wages– or, if you do pay a living wage, how did you get there?

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