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Partner Column: Achieving a Living Wage

Posted by Jon Kauffman

Photo / Rainier Valley Corps

SVP Partner Jon Kauffman was first introduced to Rainier Valley Corps in 2015 when he was part of SVP’s kindergarten-readiness new grant committee. As part of training for that effort, SVP introduced Jon to Vu Le, RVC’s executive director (and previous executive director of former SVP Investee Vietnamese Friendship Association). He has since become a longtime volunteer and supporter for the organization. As he continues to promote capacity building and equitable practices outside SVP, we can’t help but note the applications of what he’s learning.

“SVP has repeatedly given me the tools and motivation to get out of my comfort zone in nonprofit work,” Jon says. “The ongoing chances to broaden my network and deepen my skills have been critical to my growth in philanthropy.”

In his recent article for the RVC blog, he shares how he and RVC staff confronted implementing a living wage for their cornerstone fellowship program. In a rapidly growing city like Seattle, it’s critical to consider the impact of wage levels on career sustainability and equity in the sector. Even as organizations strive to accomplish their missions efficiently, Jon says that what he learned with RVC is that —as community leaders, citizens and philanthropists — we must also wrestle with the impact and examples of our own practices.

Ring…Ring…Fairness Calling…

You’ve probably heard some version of the urban legend where a person alone at home receives a series of progressively more threatening phone calls. The story culminates with the police saying “Quick! Run! The calls are coming from inside the house!” The spookiness arises from the way our expectations of safety are violated, and how enemies can be hidden close by. Part of our nonprofit work involves fighting courageously for fair treatment, equity, and overcoming individual and community poverty. What happens when we discover that the ones being unfair are us?JonKauffman

My name is Jon Kauffman, and I’ve been a volunteer in operations and development at Rainier Valley Corps since 2015. In this post, we’ll examine how RVC had to adjust its perspective on compensation and benefits when we discovered the calls for poverty pay were in fact coming from inside our organization. Earlier this year, our managing director Ananda Valenzuela asked me to analyze the Fellows’ compensation and benefits package to ensure we were paying a living wage. What began as a dry HR exercise ended up revealing important lessons about the relationship among pay, priorities, and values – and how even if you’re an enlightened new-age nonprofit boss, it’s still tricky to be a boss.

What we learned about hiring and paying RVC Fellows

The RVC Fellowship program began in 2015. We recruit people of color who want to advance as nonprofit leaders into management roles and place them at area community organizations while providing training and support in nonprofit administration, advocacy and leadership. The program runs for two years, with the first cohort working from 2015 – 2017. Compensation for that group consisted of a $13/hr wage rising with the Seattle minimum, 17 days annual paid time off, healthcare benefits with RVC covering 90% of premiums, and a $4,000 end-of-year bonus meant to help Fellows with education costs. Given the training component and prevailing local conditions, we thought this was a fair package. In fact, it was significantly more generous than we had initially budgeted, and sufficient to generate a strong pool of candidates who accepted offers. We declared victory and put compensation and benefits planning on the back burner while we focused on running the program.

Fast forward to the end of 2016 when we began planning for the second cohort. We faced troubling facts. First, our Fellows gave us feedback — the pay was either barely enough or insufficient to make ends meet. While introducing them to the promise of nonprofit careers, we were simultaneously demonstrating that those careers risked being unsustainable. While we asked them to work in the Rainier Valley community, we weren’t paying enough for them to live there. Second, our outreach to prospective candidates indicated that those with advanced skills and experience – like greater and more sophisticated work history, deeper cultural competency, advanced degrees – simply weren’t prepared to apply for a job that paid a little over Seattle’s minimum wage, even when health benefits were included. (Those with sharp ears should be able to detect a faint sound like a phone ringing in the parlor of our darkened nonprofit…)

Instead of accelerating a career in nonprofit leadership as we hoped, the program risked instead becoming an introductory survey, focused on early-in-career or new-to-career candidates whose pay expectations matched what we would offer. To add to this, we got some friendly but firm encouragement from our partners to do better. Mo! from our partner Got Green had been immersed in advocating for living wage green jobs as part of their environmental justice work, and she pressed Ananda to explain how RVC was providing living-wage jobs for its Fellows. While the total Fellow compensation package lined up with (the low end of) what Got Green had been fighting for broadly, the package suddenly didn’t seem as generous, and we found ourselves less self-congratulatory and more worried we didn’t have a sustainable program. That challenge kicked off a deeper discussion of our compensation philosophy, how we thought about the local labor market, and what we should aim for going forward.

Lower wages mean doing more with less, so that’s awesome, right?

While lowered wages might be a boon to EDs during budgeting season, they have long-term negative impacts for employees, employers, and the communities we serve. I had a few thousand eloquent, trenchant words drafted on the unique downward pressures non-profits face when setting pay, but I realized that if there’s one audience that’s already noticed this, it’s RVC and NPAF blog readers. Suffice to say, lowered wages that demand employees trade mission for cash lead to burnout, turnover, and sector departure. They also reduce the pool of qualified applicants, shorting our programs of needed skills and experience.

Beyond making it hard to bring in capable employees, low pay decreases representation. People who can’t afford to work our jobs choose work that pays better – and that includes the candidates from the communities we serve. For many, this connects back to historical exclusions from generational wealth creation, inequitable distribution of opportunities, weakly resourced networks, and the other systemic factors we’re in business to combat. If you need a highly-paid spouse, or to live at home rent free, or not to support children to afford your nonprofit job, something’s probably wrong, wrong in a way that’s driven by and contributes to inequity.

In addition to these “micro” effects within our organization, we saw hints of an equity-focused “macro” effect. In 2016, RVC staff attended The People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond‘s training on undoing institutional racism, which I’d recommend to any organization that wishes to be intentional in its community and system anti-racism work. One exercise the Institute folks led was to ask if we understood our organization’s role supporting the systems which oppress our community. As “do-good” outfits who prefer to see ourselves as part of the solution, not the problem, this can be challenging introspection. (Do you hear the heavy breathing on the line?  Yeah, um, it’s us…)

Among other things, we’ve concluded that the wage-setting is one way we can harm the communities we are trying to support. Here’s how:  Nonprofits comprise a bigger part of the economic footprint of the poorer places where our work happens. We aim to employ staff from the places we serve. If you believe (in the same way you believe water is wet and rocks fall downward) nonprofit wages tend to be lower than in other sectors, then that means we are collectively imposing downward wage pressure on those communities. Lower prevailing wages contribute to impoverishment. Connecting the dots, we can squint and see how nonprofits’ drive for efficiency can end up reinforcing poverty.

This perverse effect is true for any firm that pushes local wages lower, but it stings more for RVC, because supporting the community is our entire reason for existing. And since we aim to provide guidance and coaching to nonprofit partners, we could be magnifying the effect by tacitly endorsing similar low pay rates across the ecosystem. (“Run!  Get out!  The poverty wages are coming from inside the poverty-fighting nonprofit!”)

This thinking led us to the conclusion that RVC needed to pay its Fellows a living wage for our community, even if that was higher than the lowest we could get away with in the market. We thought this should apply to all our jobs, but it was doubly important for the Fellowship, where we hoped candidates would be rooted in the Rainier Valley – authentically connected to and part of the communities they would serve.  Poverty pay meant folks wouldn’t even put down a security deposit, let alone roots. And we owe it to the neighborhood that our Fellows be able thrive and invest in the local economy.

Continue reading Jon Kauffman’s piece on the RVC blog to see how their team implemented a living wage for their Fellowship program.


Jon Kauffman has been an SVP Partner since 2007. In addition to volunteering at RVC, he is currently a member of SVP’s Finance Community of Practice, Portfolio Grant Committee. Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Committee and most recently Lead Partner for SVP Investee East African Community Services.


One Comment:

  1. Andrea T John-Smith

    Jon, This is a great blog post. I am just now reading it! This line – “This perverse effect is true for any firm that pushes local wages lower, but it stings more for RVC, because supporting the community is our entire reason for existing” stuck out. Since all of our organizations exist to support the community, I hope RVC’s example, and your insights inspire boards to insist not only on living wages, but on a thoughtful compensation package.

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