How well are we treating people who work for social justice?

by Margi Clarke, RoadMap Consulting

We know that the social justice sector is not funded as well as the overall nonprofit sector. Just 14% of grant dollars go to groups addressing the root causes of economic, social, and environmental injustice. We also know that many social justice groups suffered large budget cuts due to the recession and most are still facing reduced or stagnant income trends. How are these trends affecting compensation practices in the sector? How well are we treating the people who tackle our most pressing issues of poverty, discrimination, war, and climate change?

A national report called The Wages of Peace and Justice shows that staff in social justice groups are paid significantly less than in the overall nonprofit sector. The study also reports these groups often offer more generous leave and benefits, and try to reflect social justice values in creative ways in both compensation and benefits.

The study draws on over 200 organizing and advocacy groups working for immigrant rights, environmental justice, LGBT issues, women’s rights, and economic justice at the local, state, and national levels. The study was produced by RoadMap, a national consulting network serving community-based organizations and alliances, in collaboration with the National Organizers Alliance (NOA) and Data Center. The study offers important information for social justice groups and for philanthropy to improve working conditions in the sector that is addressing our most pressing social and environmental challenges.

Salary Levels Less than Overall Nonprofit Sector

Salary levels for social justice organizations surveyed are 15%-45% lower than the nonprofit sector overall depending on the position, budget size, and region. For example, the RoadMap survey reports that Executive Directors in social justice groups are earning on average $67,000, and Community Organizers – a noble profession given more visibility by President Obama – are paid just $37,000 per year. 

 Almost half of social justice groups have had smaller or stagnant budgets in the last two years.

Development Directors are earning on average $53,000. Salaries vary with budget size, for example E.D. pay averages $50,000 in groups under half a million dollar budget, to $98,000 for groups over $2 million budget. Comparison sector-wide salary surveys show Executive Director salaries average over $120,000, and a 2012 California study reports Executive Directors average salary of $78,500 for nonprofits with budgets under $500,000.

Many organizers and social justice leaders are driven by a deep sense of purpose and personal responsibility stemming from their own experiences of discrimination and inequality. As they take on hard societal challenges, workload and work stress are high: burnout and turnover are the predictable results and we see a hesitance among the younger generation to step into leadership positions. Low compensation levels are troubling from an ethical standpoint and a strategic perspective of the resilience and longevity of groups we count on to lead systemic social change.

The study reveals interesting trends about how social justice groups embed their values in their compensation practices. For example, the gap between highest and lowest paid staff is under 3:1 in 67% of the groups, and under 2:1 in 50% of the groups. But the low pay of community organizers still lags behind and runs counter to how important the role is to community empowerment and long-term systemic change. Says a survey participant:“I’d like to bump up the entire salary scale. I don’t like how development staff makes so much more than organizers; it’s part of the industry standards, but it feels wrong given how much organizers work.”


Generous Fringe Benefits

While salaries are constrained, groups offer more generous benefits packages including several kinds of “family-friendly” policies. Eighty percent of groups pay the full cost of employee health insurance, and close to 40% pay full cost of dependent and spousal health coverage. Fifty-seven percent of groups provide domestic partner benefits eligibility, including overcoming barriers of state and insurance law that prohibit equal health coverage for same sex partners; and 50% offer paid parental leave over and above state benefits for the birth or adoption of a child. Says one organization representative: “We work to contract with providers that allow for domestic partners’ coverage. In the event we are unable to, we offer reimbursement for out of pocket expenses or premiums for DPs.”

Pension contributions, vacation, sick time, severance pay, sabbaticals, and coverage for part-time workers are more generous than the nonprofit sector norm, and are more generous than most private sector jobs.  (See the full report for details.)

But many groups still feel they are unable to offer attractive packages, especially as health care costs continue to rise. The survey showed that a quarter of groups are facing salary and/or benefits cuts in 2012-2013. “Costs are increasing and we are trying to figure out how to sustain staff but cut costs of our benefit package.”

Shared Decision-making

Reflecting their values in internal process, many social justice groups also are transparent and democratic in decisions about compensation. For example, staff and management team members can propose salary and benefits changes in more than half the groups, and have approval roles in about a quarter of the groups.


Survey Details

The study breaks down salaries for groups of different budget size and by region, and details the range of benefits packages from health care and vacation, to domestic partner benefits and sabbaticals. This is a valuable tool to help organizations compare their practices to others, and to get ideas for how to balance salary and benefits in creative ways.

We hope this report will spark dialogue within and across organizations in the social justice sector to find new and creative ways to support, develop, and sustain our most precious asset: our social justice workforce. We hope it also encourages philanthropy to increase grant levels to support more sustainable compensation in the social justice sector. The Executive Summary and Full Report are available from RoadMap, along with a companion discussion guide and other resources. The Summary is free and the full PDF report is available for the purchase price of $75.00, which helps to defray the research and production costs. 

Guest blogger Margi Clarke’s background is in immigrant organizing, environmental justice, and cooperative economics and she has 15 years’ experience as an organizational development consultant. She is the author of the Wages of Peace and Justicecompensation survey. RoadMap’s mission is to strengthen social justice organizations and the social justice sector through capacity building, peer learning, and field building. 


Social Justice Salary Survey and resources:

Social justice grantmaking: