To keep valuable commodity, fair compensation is necessary


August 12, 1991|By LESTER A. PICKER

"With a good conscience our only sure reward . . . let us go forth to lead the land we love . . . knowing that here on Earth, God's work must truly be our own."

Many of us responded to President John F. Kennedy's eloquent plea, aspiring to careers in the non-profit sector, helping our less fortunate fellow travelers on this tiny planet. Like those who came before and those who continue to enter the field, many are driven by compassion or by eagerness to contribute toward the betterment of human society.

One thing, however, is for certain. People do not enter the non-profit sector to get rich.

If we exclude government services such as teaching, the non-profit sector pays its employees abysmally poorly by any objective compensation measure. Of course, one hears all the traditional justifications for such disregard of employee needs: We need every dollar we can raise for the services we offer the needy, we offer employees the opportunity to do good, it's not bad pay if you're doing it for a second income, and the lower salaries go to younger workers without families, and . . .

Come on, let's stop fooling ourselves. Non-profit employees have every right to earn a wage that can support a family. I'm not talking

executive compensation here, I'm talking decent wages. This is particularly true for the smaller non-profits, where employee salaries are so low that even a single person has difficulty making very modest ends meet.

Yet, these same employees are some of the most dedicated people I know. Typically, 40-hour weeks for these folks is Fantasy Island revisited. Uncompensated event coverage is the norm, client emergencies after hours a given. Fighting burnout from dealing with the intractable problems of the needy is a daily battle.

Today, many non-profits no longer reflect the workplace diversity they should -- a fact hidden from public view. And that hurts them in the long run. People with families find better-paying jobs, leaving the non-profit with younger, less experienced workers and a potential leadership gap.

Oddly enough, executive salaries at non-profit organizations have been rising steadily, in part due to the growing recognition of the management responsibilities such positions entail. Faye Wattleton of Planned Parenthood and Jay Hair of the National Wildlife Federation, each receive more than $200,000 annually while line workers receive less than one-tenth that amount. This growing gap is the source of much employee unrest at several non-profits that I consult.

Can anything be done about this sad state of affairs? Most non-profit institutions will continue to offer relatively low pay compared to the private sector. But there are many things a non-profit can do to raise employee salaries.

First, there must be a commitment on the part of the board of directors to fair and equitable salary scales and benefit packages for all employees. Ideally, this would involve a study of compensation practices by a board committee with significant employee involvement.

Next, following the lead of for-profit companies, the board should establish a cap on the ratio between the CEO's compensation package and the entry-level professional employee. This is an incredible boost to employee morale and is a policy that employees feel is fair and just.

No employee of a non-profit organization should have to work without adequate benefits, especially health care. Unfortunately, health insurance is expensive, as are other benefits. That is why non-profits must band together into purchasing alliances to lower costs. Several Baltimore museums and cultural institutions are already starting this process.

I have always found it ludicrous that an organization devoted to helping the needy or protecting our environment should be so oblivious to the needs of its most precious commodity -- its employees. Every successful corporation in the United States will concur with the need to provide decent benefits for its workers.

Most important of all, corporate-giving decision makers and foundation executives must abandon the abusive practice of keeping overhead compensation unrealistically low. No corporation would bid on a contract in which they were limited to 8 percent or 10 percent for overhead costs. The same should be true for non-profits.

Les Picker, a consultant in the field of philanthropy, works with charitable organizations and for-profit companies.

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