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How can you make your nonprofit stop bleeding money with turnover?

Decent work!

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You can listen to the video, or read the transcript below.

MT: Thank you Pamela Uppal so much for being here with me now. You will be speaking at the Nonprofit Leadership Summit this September. You work at the Ontario Nonprofit Network and you’re specifically working on decent work for women, the research about how decent work is working for different organizations in parts of Ontario. Is that correct?

PU: Yeah. So ONN has been doing decent work work for a number of years now. That really sort of grew out of our work just looking at the labor market of the nonprofit sector in Ontario, right? What our success is. What our challenge is and barriers. What’s sort of going on with recruitment, retention, etc. So we use a lot of different ways to talk about that. Human capital. Human renewal strategies. Labor force market. Then we came across the decent work framework from the International Labor Organization and the UN.

They had a bunch of indicators that sort of show if work is good. If the work being provided to employees is meeting a certain standard where they can thrive. So we’re like, hey, this is really interesting. Let’s see if we can apply this to the nonprofit sector here in Ontario. So we took that framework. We picked about seven indicators. Wages, stable employment, benefits, culture, leadership, equity in leadership, and sort of graded, almost, the nonprofit sector against that. So we released a report called Change Work a couple of years ago. That sort of talked about the nonprofit sector in comparison to these seven indicators.

We learned a lot from that. Our goods and our bads and sort of where do we go from here? How do we improve the sector organizationally, but network wide and systemically to offer decent work to their employees. Because one of our main sort of messages is, if we can offer decent work to the employees in the sector, we’ll have better organizations that are meeting their mandates and their mission and consequently thriving communities with people getting the help and support that they need. Just last year, we thought about okay, we’re doing decent work. The sector in Ontario, though, is 80% women workers, and 20% are men.

Nationally it would hold very, very close if not the same. I’m assuming in the States it’s probably very similar too.

MT: It is.

PU: So then we started thinking about well, you know, what does decent work for women look like? What supports do they particularly need to thrive? How can we set up women working the sector for success? So that’s sort of where this work grew out of. Just adding that gender lens to decent work and the framework and thinking about what our space needs for women, because we know women generally face many barriers in the labor market. The gender wage gap, we have flat ceilings, harassment.

So we’re really like, okay. Is this happening in our sector? If so, what do we do about it?

MT: I love that. You know, Pamela, ever since you came out with the Change Work Report a couple of years ago, your organization has been such an inspiration to me personally and professionally. In the last week, I actually was presenting at the Money for Our Movements conference in Atlanta, and I referenced your work both times in both my presentations there. I tried to help people understand what decent work framework looks like in my presentation on workplace bullying, as well on my presentation on how to build trust deliberately.

The thing that I feel really holds our nonprofits back, (and correct me here, because you’ve done research that I haven’t done) is the fact that we don’t treat our people as well as we could with pensions and benefits like family leave or flex time, or wage increases and less precarious work, etc. This is some of the language that has come from your website, but it’s also something that speaks to me personally as a nonprofit worker. Something that has happened to me in my own personal professional life, having to buy groceries on credit.

Getting my car into a crash trying to go get auction items and not being able to pay for a $1,000 repair on my radiator. Just feeling like working in the sector wasn’t working for me, because I wasn’t getting taken care of by my organization and my boss would steal my wages. She had me work on Christmas and just not get paid for that. She told me not to report my overtime. As a woman in the sector, I feel like things have happened to me also from a sexual harassment perspective that wouldn’t have happened to a guy. So I’ve written about this as well.

But part of what I said in my trust presentation is how can we build trust with our communities, with our donors? If we don’t trust each other, why should you trust your nonprofit if they are not taking care of you? So I really started to have a more mercenary mindset when I was working at nonprofits. Like well, I’m just going to take care of myself. Screw this organization. The cause is always going to be there, but they don’t care about me. You know what I mean? So that, I feel like, is what makes us really inefficient and effective and that’s what leads to such massive turnover. I know especially in Canada, you have like a six month average turnover for a lot of fundraisers. That’s just hearing from a fundraising recruiter that I know recruits all over Canada.

But in the US, the tenure is an average of 12 to 18 months. So if you’re constantly having new people turning over, just in that department alone, you’re not being effective with your donor money and you’re not being effective with your people. Your nonprofit is a machine made of people. How can we say we want to make a better world when we’re not oiling and fixing our machine to make it as good as possible? You know. Just from a human perspective, how can you get away with saying you want to make a better world and then treat your people like crap? So that’s why I’m so passionate about what you’re doing specifically at Ontario Nonprofit Network and decent work for women. So I wanted to share that.

PU: That’s really interesting, a lot of the things that you’ve shared. So with the project, the first year and a half has been really about hearing from women working in the sector directly, right? First, figuring out what are these employment experiences. We of course know the anecdotes. We have a friend of a friend, but we really wanted to begin by documenting what’s going on and what these experiences are, and not just assuming. So the first year and a half we did a lit review, and from that lit review, some of the stuff that you’ve talked about has emerged, right?

So the three findings that we had were the sector is women majority. There is 80% women workers, but it’s not women led. So even though men pick up 20% of the space, so to speak, in the sector, that’s a significant space because they are more concentrated on leadership positions, right? In bigger organizations, which by default have bigger budgets and can pay more than smaller organizations. The funny thing is that often, the pushback that I’ll get is, you know, you have so many women in the sector so everything’s great. But that doesn’t take away from the fact that, you know, women do still experience some of those larger barriers that they face in the larger labor market in our sector as well.

So that leadership piece. So it looks like we have a lot of women leaders, because we do. But in proportionate to their share of the labor force in the sector, they are concentrated in admin positions or in lower level positions, right? So they are like 90% there and maybe 60% in leadership positions, right? The other finding that we had was because we were deliberately applying an intersectional lens to the work, right? So it’s not just about all general women, but racialized women and immigrant women and indigenous women, right? So where are they in the sector and what are their experiences? So the lit review did reveal that there is a glass ceiling for diverse women, right? So racialized and immigrant women are more likely to be concentrated in lower level positions. So again, you have a lot of women leaders but you have a lot of white women leaders, right? In the sector. So looking at that, and then the third piece is around compensation, right? So we’re really looking at compensation holistically in the sense it’s your wages, but also your benefits. Health, pensions, and maternity leave. That being the big one that we’re looking at.

So we found maybe at the lower level positions, it’s harder to know if there’s a gender wage gap. But because men are concentrated in larger organizations, bigger budgets, and women aren’t, there’s that gender wage gap there, right? I’ve been talking to women a lot about negotiating, right? So in for profit it’s women don’t have the skill for whatever reason. We can go into that to negotiate. So once they learn that skill, they’ll be able to ask more and then they’ll get more. It’s a little bit more complicated in our sector, because where is that money going to come from, right?

So I can develop my skills to negotiate and go ask for more, but the reality is that the structures and the systems in place – the organization, even if they wanted to offer me more, right? So looking at the gender wage gap from that perspective. Then there’s a care penalty. So women working in the sector are already making less based on their education and experience versus someone who’s doing the exact same work in public or for profit, right? So you have that. Then you have the gender wage gap when you get into senior position. Then we don’t have a pension plan, right? So women live longer and then retire into poverty almost.

We know that women who choose to have children and take time off to take care of their children, that impacts our earnings a lot, right? So how can we have supplementary sort of earnings for women? We call it a maternity top up here in Ontario and in Canada. So what does that mean? Some really interesting stuff that’s highlighted this already has come up in our learning circles and our key informant interviews, and new things that I hadn’t thought about are also emerging. So ONN is analyzing that and hopefully we’ll be putting out a report in the Fall.

MT: That’s so exciting. I love that. Well, I hope that the leadership summit can be part of your PR campaign for this report because we need to learn from you, quite honestly. My big goal for the rest of the year is to try to talk to as many associations here in the US as possible and do webinars for them about decent work and how we can apply what you’re finding to what we’re doing here. Because I’m so excited about your work and I feel like the time has really come, as we talk about the me too movement and other things in the news that are very large. We’re looking at equality with an intersectional lens now, which I think is different than we’ve looked at it before, and exciting. It’s exciting to think about not just equality but justice, and especially – you know what I mean?

PU: Definitely.

MT: Justice for people who are not being led into leadership positions and supported once they are there, and who’s allowed to make mistakes and who’s not. You know what I mean?

PU: Yeah. One thing that I – when I was doing my lit review and just doing learning for this project, the States have some really good data already, right? It is ahead of us in terms of the information that it has collected. I mean, the project that we’re working on right now, someone had worked on it a couple years ago in the States already, right? I think it was called the 74% Project. There is information around compensation and the gender wage gap in the sector. So I think what’s really extending for the States particularly is that you have relevant and so to speak up to date data for the sector. How can we use that?

We’re sort of still trying to collect that information and that data and move from there. Then the other thing that I wanted to point out was, what we’re also learning is – and in some way, we might already have known that. We knew that, but it’s interesting to learn this through talking to other women and doing all these activities with the project. But the sector is highly feminized, right? It’s an extension of care work. It is care work. It’s an extension of women’s work. It sort of grew out of this charity church sort of model, doing good to the community, serving the community, and it’s historically and it’s supposed to be done traditionally for free from the goodness of our hearts, right? So that has some real life implications in our current setting when the sector has professionalized like crazy, right?

So all of those pieces, when we think of it in that framing, low wages, little benefits, concentration of women, under appreciation, it comes from a particular narrative, right? So it’s not just about doing some of that organizational work and that network work. But also a wider systemic approach to changing how we fundamentally think about the sector and moving away from it being so gendered and feminized. Like some of the relationships that we’ve been talking about, funder to organization and organization to organization, are very gendered. Or board to ED, very gendered relationships. So that’s part of decent work, too, right?

How do we reveal those relationships and then move away from this gendered narrative we have?

MT: That’s such a good question. You’re blowing my mind here, right now, Pamela. Wow. Yeah, I mean, I thought of it last year as more like emotional labor. You know what I mean?

PU: Oh, yeah. Yeah.

MT: So there’s a book by Rebecca Solnit called The Mother of All Questions, and she had an essay in there called Unsilence. Check out this book. It’s a slim book. It’s an orange book, a good book. But she’s a wonderful feminist writer. If you haven’t read that book. I wrote a blot post – three blog posts about it because I felt like you were calling it feminized. I’m calling it emotional labor. You know, it’s kind of the same sort of structure behind it. But what happens is a lot of times in our society, women are tasked with building relationships with people and taking care of people and we don’t count that as real work, but it is.

So we see social workers, we see advocates in the domestic violence movement for example, really getting very low wages here. But then it applies to like everybody else. So for example, I was working at a domestic violence organization in 2006 and I was making $14.00 an hour. That’s US, right? Then I saw the position being advertised again last year for the exact same amount of money. So that’s like 12 years later. It should have risen. The wage should have risen at least $10, you know? Didn’t happen though.

Then I had a friend who worked at our domestic violence sort of coordinating agency here in the States. It coordinates advocacy for like the different counties that have different domestic violence and sexual assault nonprofit resources. So their board was made up of all of these different executive directors from all of these different agencies, and because they were all making $12 an hour, they thought that the people who were living in Portland, which is the most expensive city in the state. You have to make $20 an hour just to be able to live here. It’s been proven.

They should be all making $12 an hour because they weren’t making any more than that. So it’s not just about oppression of men against women. It’s about women oppressing other women.

PU: A lot of lateral violence, right? Women on women bullying is something that’s come up a lot, too. So I just wanted to go back to your emotional labor comment. It’s so interesting. Yes, it’s happening systemically and sector wide. But one of the interesting things that I’ve found from talking to women through our learning circles – so we did 14 learning circles across seven in Ontario. We spoke with both frontline and non management workers and senior leaders. They talked about emotional labor at the granule, very micro level. So it’s not just about the sector, but also who’s making the coffee and the tea? Who’s putting together the going away, the baby showers, the birthday parties?

Who’s getting the cards? Who’s doing the cleaning? So even to that level, the sector – some organizations don’t have money to hire cleaners or have a full fledged out kitchen. Whatever it might be. Who’s doing that emotional labor at work, right? So yeah, it’s really interesting thinking about it at so many different levels. I know the leadership summit, particularly, I’ve been thinking about leadership in the sector. The two questions that keep popping up to me and that I’m wondering and thinking of learning about are, are we creating enough opportunities for women to move up in the sector? Which has been a big piece or a big issue.

Then, once women are in leadership positions, are we setting them up for success?

MT: The answer to that is no and no.

PU: What role does the board play? What role do our male colleagues and our male counterparts play? What role do current women leaders play for mentorship and coaching of younger professional women who are coming into the sector, right? So these are all important questions and all very timely, like you said.

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MT: Yes, yes. I completely agree. We’re not doing enough, and in the US at least, we women have had the vote for about 100 years. We’ve only been able to have legal abortions for 50 years and that’s being rolled back in some places. That’s under attack now. So we haven’t been able to have dominion of our own bodies for over 50 years, which means that there’s less confidence and there’s less support and there’s more internalized oppression than there otherwise would be, for a variety of reasons, right? But also there’s a lot of stuff people don’t talk about.

White tears, white guilt, whatever, right? We’re supposed to go into the sector. Then once we’re in, people say hey, I have a problem with this. This is like a problematic way that you’re talking about people or supporting people to lead. People think, well, I’m already on the side of the angels. Why are you attacking me? So that’s something that I talked with a guy who is outside of Toronto named Hamlin Grange. He’s a diversity practitioner and he’s done a lot of presentations for the sector, and he’s like, you know you have a problem that you have to make systemic steps to change it. That’s what I’m excited about in your research and excited about your presentation for, Pamela, because I feel like you have this framework.

You have these different points people can meet or try to meet or try to understand metrics for for their organizations that before, it was just a very nebulous issue. Where now I feel like you’re really codifying, and especially in your listening circles, into something really coming from the community. Like this is what we want and this is what we need. This is the part we’re not getting. If you can name it, you can claim it, and then when you claim it. Like Mumia Abu-Jamal says, then you can start to understand systems of power and then you can change them.

PU: Definitely, and you know, one thing that I appreciate about ONN and our approach is that we take a very positive approach. It’s really easy to get stuck in oh my God, the sector sucks and everybody sucks and we’re never going to be able to change it because we’re never going to get enough money. So that’s a very dangerous place to be in because you just get lost in that. I don’t know. You just get lost in that, right? And I’ve heard that a lot, too. It’s really interesting when you talk to frontline workers, non management workers who are even new into the sector and they already know this narrative.

This funding structure narrative. We don’t have a lot of money. We need more money. If we had more money, things would have been fixed. I’m like, well, you’ve only been here for a couple of years, right? So we really need to think about what narrative we’re passing down, but also approaching it from a positive space. Yes, we need to work on funding issues at a policy level. But there are a lot of things organizations can do in the space that they have and the money that they have. There’s a lot of things as networks we can do, right? And part of this project and part of our decent work work has been, how do we highlight that? How do we empower organizations? How do we give them the tools, the resources and confidence to start doing the little stuff and then eventually build up to the big stuff?

How we as a network in Ontario can support some of the big stuff and build capacity around that. So our pensions work is a really great example of that. Not every organization is going to be able to go out in the sector and build or create or become part of a pension plan, right? So we’re doing that sector wide. Doing the research, doing the due diligence, connecting, building relationships and figuring out what would be the best option for the sector. Then presenting it to them, right? So yeah.

Especially when it comes to women, I’m just going to touch on this a little bit. I mean, there are so many examples of decent work for women, right? Like flex hours. Mentorship and coaching. What does the gender wage gap look like? How are we approaching negotiations? Are we open to them negotiating, right? So there are all these things that we can do at an organizational level, that not always will require that surplus of money coming in, right?

MT: Very much so. It’s about the benefits package, not just about money. Though it is also about money and how we value women’s labor.

PU: And convening. I mean, the number one piece that has come out of the – I’ve talked to about 100 women at this point – has been, you know what? Just the power of women working in the nonprofit sector in the same room sharing their experiences has been amazing. Right? What happens beyond this is like the icing on the cake. So just coming together with seven or eight other women who work in the sector in their region and they are all in the same position, like level, and just being like, hey, this happened to me and this happened to you.

Oh my God, that’s such a great idea. I’m going to try this or this is what you’re doing. It’s been amazing. So that’s something we can do as a sector. We don’t need money to convene women, right? Or like funding relationships. So how do we also create these mechanisms and supports to help women to make a difference in the lives of the women working in our sector?

MT: I love that, Pamela. That’s something that hadn’t occurred to me. Like I was thinking about just getting some more data and presenting it. But really, it is about tend, befriend and connect people with each other and get solutions that work for them and not assume that you know what the solution is.

PU: Yeah, and the sector is doing some great things, right? So how do we adopt some of the stuff they’re doing but nuance it to meet our needs, right? So there’s mentorship circles and coaching circles set up all across the corporate sector. Every organization has women in the organization, space or learning circle or something, right? We can do that in our sector, too. We might not be able to do it at the level that they’re doing it. But we can try some of these things, too.

MT: I agree with you. It’s something that I’m seeing a need for more and more as I work with different women leaders in the sector, how they’re being promoted but then it’s an old boys’ club and they’re not sure how to interact with their board or other staff that assume that they can just say the same thing I say and it will work for you, and it doesn’t because people treat you differently because you’re a woman.

PU: And the negotiation piece is a big one that’s been coming up, that came up in my learning circles. A lot of them saying I just want to go to a webinar that tells me how I can negotiate.

MT: I teach that webinar. I teach it.

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PU: That’s where we’ve seen it. In the for profit sector you’re taught in business school how to negotiate. You have a mentor in your organization who’s teaching you how to do that, right? So how can we build those supports and structures into our organizations?

MT: Right, exactly. I talked to AFP last year on how to negotiate your salary. It was a packed session. People emailed me and wrote me thank you notes later. I got the package that I wanted. I got a $12,000 wage raise. But I mean, this is fundraisers. Fundraisers are at least usually seasoned askers. But I would like to help everyone, not just the fundraisers. You know what I mean?

But I have phrases that will work for just about anybody, and the thing is, as you said, if you’re a frontline worker, saying I want to make $60,000 a year isn’t necessarily going to jive with their expectation of what your role should be paid. If they think you should be making 40 or 20 and you say 60, they’re going to say, well, we’re not the job for you.

PU: Yeah. It’s just that awareness, too. A lot of women are like, I don’t even know what I’m supposed to be making. Like I don’t know what a decent wage is or a fair salary is for my education and experience. I just love this work. I’m so passionate about it. I want to give back. So I’m going to do it. Right?

So yeah, there’s a lot of nuances. A lot of nuances that we need to think about. It’s not as simple as, you know, give them the skill to ask for more and then they will get more. There’s a lot more nuance there, and how do we work with them? Yeah.

MT: Well, you know, last year, Charity Village came out with a report that’s like $100. But it’s Canadian nonprofit salary survey. That can be useful. I haven’t seen it in great detail, but I did interview them about it. So that’s something to think about, partnering up with them.

PU: Definitely, yeah. I’ve read all three. They’ve done it for about a decade now and they have three reports out. So I’ve read all of them, and it’s good level information. But like I said, you have to pay for it, right? We have another one called the Bolen Survey that happens here. That’s national as well. A little bit more information that comes out of that. But they’re as good as people filling them out is the other piece.

At ONN we’re advocating for more data. Once we know concrete, up to date data around what people are making, we can start saying that these are the changes that need to happen, right? One of the thing that came out of the learning circles were that women were like, where do I go to even know how much people are making? Like compensation reports were big, and some sectors do their own compensation reports too. The arts and culture sector, community support associations, etc. So I’m just trying to just share that information as well and educate that there are these reports out there. Here they are in a Word doc. Just click on them.

So these are all the different levels of the project.

MT: Yes, and in the US for people listening, we have salary.com. We have Nonprofit Times did a salary report as well as the Underdeveloped Report did some salary pieces. But we also have Guidestar.org which looks at all of the charitable tax returns of every single nonprofit that’s not a defunct nonprofit, and you can see how much the highest paid people make. You can extrapolate that to what you’ll probably make at this job.

We also have Simplyhired.com which will give you underneath the job title, exactly the range of salary they have to put that in. So usually that’s useful to see that. You can say okay, they’re going to pay me $12 an hour up to $15. I don’t want this job.

PU: We’ve recently passed the pay transparency legislation here in Ontario. So employers have to post a salary range. If you are more than X amount of employees, the legislation has been going back and forth. But I think it’s 100 now. So if you’re more than 100 employees, you have to disclose how much men and women are making in your organization. What’s been interesting about that legislation is, in principle it’s great. Love it. There’s so much good research around disclosure and pay transparency.

But on the other hand, as nonprofits, that’s another regulatory sort of burden, right? We don’t have HR. So who’s going to do all that work? On the other hand, most organizations don’t have 100 employees. Some of the sector is already exempt from it anyways, right? Which women are able to take advantage of these bigger legislative pieces that come in and which we’re also looking at from a policy perspective. How do we advocate for the nonprofit sector lens when we’re talking about gender and labor? But then also how do we advocate for gender within the sector when we’re talking about labor? That’s been an interesting tension as well that’s emerged.

MT: I love that you’re talking about that, because yeah. You get into people’s feelings when you say that we’re advocating especially for women. When I was working at a domestic violence shelter and we would go out and do speaking engagements, people would say, what about the men? We had to be able to come back from that with, well, 80% of police calls that are domestic violence related and 99.9% of the calls that we get are from women. So we focus on the group that’s asking for our help the most, and I’m sure a lot of men are in pain and suffering as well. We should advocate for them, too. But we have to focus on who needs our help the most right now.

That’s kind of how we get around that question, because there’s a lot there. You know, I’m excited to be presenting at Congress this year in Toronto, AFP Congress, on some of these tough questions. I hope that ONN can be there and that I can meet you and that we can talk about some things.

PU: Yeah, for sure, for sure. Whenever you’re in Toronto, let us know and we can set up a coffee chat or come down to our office. We have a beautiful office.

MT: Yes. Yes, I would love to. I would love to. I really want to be like your American arm. I know it’s not part of your mission. But the legislation that you’re doing is so hopeful for me personally, because here in the state that I live in, we’ve made it I believe now, illegal to ask how much you made before when you are going in for a job. So that’s a little place to start, and we also have now new protections in place. So if you’ve been incarcerated, you know, they necessarily can’t ask you that. Some of them ask for your credit report before they hire you.

It’s like, that’s none of your business. So we have so fewer protections than you do in Canada and I feel like we need more, obviously. So the fact that you’re focusing so much on both research and advocacy is inspiring to me, and – I want people to come to your session and learn more about what you’re doing. So what’s a good reason for people to come to your session?

PU: A good reason? Well, why not, right? Like I said, I mean, one thing we have to remember. The biggest strength of the nonprofit sector is the passion people have for the work, right? You go anywhere, you talk to anybody. The number one reason they work in the sector is because they love – despite everything else – love what they do, right? So if that’s our biggest strength in the sector, how do we make sure that that strength stays alive and well and is thriving, right? Because if we’re doing well, our clients are going to do well. Our organizations are going to do well. Our communities are going to do well, right? If we have a burnt out social worker dealing with a client who is going through a crisis and is living in a community that is in crisis, that’s not going to help anybody.

So our session is really about connecting big macro level pieces around decent work in the nonprofit sector and organizations to outcomes, positive outcomes for our communities.

MT: Right. That is absolutely true, and so for people who want to save money on employee turnover. People who want to make more money by keeping their good employees and providing better services. Because people feel like you care about them and not just see them as a disposable tissue to be used up and thrown away.

PU: Running an effective organization, smart organization, strategic organization, and really what role does the labor force play in that and how can you sort of work with that? Yeah.

MT: Exactly, yeah. So that’s why they should come. I think that’s a wonderful reason to come, wonderful reasons to come. So Pamela, thank you so much for this interview. I am even more excited about your session now. So I hope people will join us.

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