Sep-Oct 2013 GFJ Feature Article

 Pay Equity for Social Justice Movements:

How Are We Balancing Resources & Our Values?

by Margi Clarke, RoadMap Consulting

Wages of Peace & Justice report cover

Good leaders know that people are our movements’ most important resource, and thus staff well-being and longevity are essential to our groups’ success and impact in the world. Compensation practices are one of the most important but unexamined tools we use to recruit and retain talented staff.

A 2012 national study, The Wages of Peace and Justice, presents the salary and benefits policies of 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 and companion discussion guide offer important information for social justice and philanthropy groups to foster more sustainable, transparent and supportive compensation practices.

We know that the social justice sector is not funded as well as the overall nonprofit sector.  On average in the last five years, just eight to fourteen percent of grant dollars went to groups addressing the root causes of economic, social and environmental injustice. (

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?

NCRP figures

Source: National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy

Salary Levels Less than Overall Nonprofit Sector

Low pay is a perennial challenge that results in turnover and contributes to stress levels of people engaged in very challenging and demanding work in traumatized communities. The average annual pay for community organizers is just $37,000, while a living wage for one adult supporting one child is $47,000 to $49,000 in California or New York, and $40,000 to $43,000 in Texas, Florida or Colorado.

Organizing by its nature is most successful when we build long-term relationships, but how can this happen when the pay scale for organizers makes it unrealistic for them to stay at their jobs for the long haul?

Overall salary levels for social justice organizations surveyed are 15 to 45 percent lower that the overall nonprofit sector, depending on the position, organizational budget, and region. The RoadMap survey reports that executive directors in social justice groups are earning on average $67,000 per year, community organizers $37,000, and development directors $53,000.

Executive director pay averages $50,000 in social justice groups with budgets under $500,000 to $98,000 for groups with over $2 million budgets. Comparison sector-wide salary surveys show executive director salaries average over $120,000 and $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. As they are often hard hit by societal challenges, organizers’ workload and work stress are high, with burnout and quick turnover the predictable results. We see a hesitance among the younger generation to step into leadership positions. Indeed, low compensation levels are troubling from both ethical and strategic perspectives as they pose a great threat to the resilience and longevity of groups we count on to lead systemic social change.

Reflecting Our Values

Despite limited resources and low pay, the study reveals social justice groups embed their values in their compensation practices. For example, the gap between highest and lowest paid staff is under a 3-to-1 ratio in 67 percent of the groups, and under a 2-to-1 ratio in 50 percent of the groups, whereas the nonprofit sector as a whole tends to replicate more of a hierarchical and corporate pay scale structure that creates a large gap between the highest and lowest paid workers. The pay ratio and other values- based policies in raises and family-friendly benefits are outlined in RoadMap’s companion guide to revising compensation policies. The guide and salary survey are great resources to spark dialogue about your organization’s practices, offering examples of progressive approaches in setting salaries, providing benefits, and making decisions about compensation

Unfortunately, while the close ratio of lowest to highest pay is admirable, especially compared to the for profit sector, organizer salaries still lag behind others in social justice movements.

pay ratios chart

Philanthropy Trends

There are some indications that funding to empower underserved groups is increasing slowly, from 12 percent of grant dollars in 2004-2006 to 15 percent in 2008-2010, according to NCRP’s report on The State of Social Justice Philanthropy. But The Foundation Center predicts that unless philanthropy sees five years of above average investment returns, social justice grant making in 2015 will remain below 2008 levels. (

Generous Fringe Benefits

While salaries are constrained, social justice 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 percent pay the 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. Fifty percent offer paid parental leave beyond state mandates.

Pension contributions, vacation, sick time, severance pay, sabbaticals, and coverage for part-time workers are more generous than the non-profit sector norm, and are more generous than most private sector jobs.

But many groups still feel they are unable to offer attractive packages, especially as health care costs continue to rise. Groups surveyed report spending up to 35 percent of every compensation dollar on fringe benefits. Nearly 24 percent of groups report their total benefits cost between 25 to 29 percent of total salary costs, and 6 percent of groups report costs over 35 percent of salaries (including employer paid federal taxes of about 12 percent). The survey showed that a quarter of groups are facing salary and/or benefits cuts in 2012-2013.

Shared Decision-making

Many social justice groups 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.

decision making chart

However, 56 percent of groups reported not having “established salary scale or written salary policy.” It is hard to have fair standards without having well-understood policies and regular review of practices.

Recommendations for Social Justice Groups


  • Take the time to look at your compensation package at least every three years. Use this study and other local nonprofit salary surveys to compare your policies to the wider trends
  • Consider creating a team to guide the staff and board through a comprehensive look at salary scale, benefits and decision-making around compensation. Use the Salary Policy Discussion Guide to help bring everyone to the same understanding of the underlying assumptions and values built into your policies.
  • Talk to your donors about how you are trying to bring all staff to living wage standards and provide family-friendly benefits. Their support is important in ensuring the sustainability of staff and success of your programs.
  • Share your perspectives with your allies, and suggest dialogues about these practices in coalitions and funder convenings you participate in.

Contact RoadMap if you have experience or tools to share, or want to participate in our online webinar series on human resources practices from a social justice perspective.  Send comments to


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 nudges philanthropy to increase funding levels to support more sustainable compensation in the social justice sector in line with what it really takes to win on our issues.

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 $50 for groups with budgets under $500,000, which helps to defray the research and production costs (email for a coupon code). Many thanks to the pro-bono efforts of RoadMap, DataCenter and National Organizers Alliance that made this project possible.

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