HUMAN RESOURCES | Social Justice for Nonprofit Workers: Committing to a Living Wage

publication date: Oct 12, 2023
author/source: Kailey Morin

A few months ago, I scrolled past a post with nonprofit job openings. As I scanned, my jaw dropped. There was an organization I’m familiar with offering the same role with the same low salary that they did back in 2014. Nearly ten years later, it had not budged.  

I went and looked at a few job boards. I saw position after position with salaries below the living wage. Frustrated, I took to LinkedIn. “Don’t tell me you are fighting poverty when you’re dragging your own employees over the precipice of it,” I said.  

My post took off. It resonated with hundreds in the sector and had nearly 25,000 impressions. It received support from board members, executive directors, fundraisers, foundation staff, frontline workers, and HR professionals. 

The response left me a bit confused. If we can all agree that funding justice work with poverty wages is unacceptable, why do we keep doing it?  

The nonprofit human resource crisis 

In 2014 I was interviewed for a study called Not Profiting from Precarity: The Work of Nonprofit Service Delivery and the Creation of Precariousness. It highlighted the poor working conditions of the nonprofit sector and how it impacts its workers, which today is made up of nearly 80 percent women – many of whom represent multiple marginalized communities. 

I caught up with one of its co-authors, Dr. John Shields, professor at Toronto Metropolitan University and the author of the book Precarious Employment: Causes, Consequences and Remedies to discuss what has happened in the near-decade since.  

“There is a human resource crisis within the nonprofit sector today,” says Dr. Shields. “Job pressures and burnout have increased and there’s a shortage of volunteers. Organizations are underpaying workers. Between the rents and the cost of living, many people are concluding it’s no longer possible to work for nonprofits.” 

According to Imagine Canada’s Diversity is our Strength 2022 report, the average annual salary economy-wide in Canada is over $57,000. For community agencies, it’s just $38,716. A living wage – defined as the “hourly wage a worker needs to earn to cover their basic expenses,” by Living Wage Canada – was $23.15 in Toronto in 2022. For a 40-hour work week, that’s the equivalent of a $48,152 annual salary.

While small social service organizations are often hamstrung by low-paying government contracts – a funding problem unto itself – “bigger organizations could be providing moral leadership and direction,” says Dr. Shields. “They’re social justice driven organizations, but they forget the social justice of their own workers. Their workers are often drawn from the communities they’re serving. At that level, we have exploitation taking place.”   

Nicole Gagliardi, a nonprofit strategist, makes a distinction between common nonprofit excuses that are outside of an organization’s control, like economic trends, and those that are squarely within it. According to Gagliardi, employee wages is within their control. “We don’t have to pretend that it’s easy for organizations to navigate the complex landscape of the nonprofit sector,” Gagliardi said in a LinkedIn post this past summer. “But we also don’t have to pretend that organizations are helpless in the face of harmful or broken systems.” 

For a sector whose existence hinges on its ability to find solutions to harmful and broken systems, it’s time we apply those skills for nonprofit workers. 

With leadership from the Ontario Nonprofit Network advocating for decent funding practices for decent wages and Imagine Canada aiming to give nonprofits a “Home in Government,” there is growing momentum to address systemic challenges. But nonprofit workers can’t afford to wait. 

Making the commitment to a living wage

Germaine Catchpole, Chair of the Board for Food Share Toronto, a fundraising consultant, and an Anishinaabe woman from Lac Seul First Nation, says it comes down to values.

“The commitment to a living wage for all staff is our food justice values in action,” Catchpole says. “As an organization focused on food justice, we do not feel that we have the ability to advocate for the systems-level changes required to truly tackle food insecurity if we were inadvertently contributing to it by paying poverty-level wages.” 

In 2021, Food Share Toronto officially became a Living Wage employer. The decision was just one “part of an ecosystem of policies,” that included publishing their pay grid, instituting a 1:3 wage ratio between the lowest and highest paid workers, and providing wellness, paid and vacation days well above industry averages.   

The shift took a fulsome examination of their policies and finances along with trust in their donors, Catchpole explains. “Overall, the response has been overwhelmingly positive. When the announcement was made, we had long-time donors increase their contributions.” 

Making the commitment to a living wage may require nonprofits to reimagine their finances and operations, work deeply with their funders, or change programs. Workers might find progress in unionization. And if there is no path forward, we’re left with hard questions about the financial sustainability of some organizations. “If you are really not able to pay people for their work at a rate that would allow them to sustain themselves, how can the work sustain itself in the long term?” Catchpole asks. 

In a sector where worker wages are often pitted against missions, we need to move to a place where we see them as one and the same.

“This is not just our problem,” Dr. Shields adds. “It’s society’s problem. We’ve got to change this dynamic. It’s not an easy task.” 

It’s certainly not easy, but our work never is. 

Interested in learning more about committing to a living wage? 

Learn more about the living wage in your community at Living Wage Canada. Check out these handy printable assessment tools from Ontario Nonprofit Network’s Decent Work and Contracts Pathway. Start a conversation in your workplace. We’re the ones who change this. 

Kailey Morin is a fundraising-savvy communications strategist who believes that storytelling can help build a better world. She has spent 13 years partnering with teams like yours to inspire people to take action.

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