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Many of the deep-rooted challenges facing our society are the result of widening income inequality. Canada is an extraordinarily wealthy country, and yet over the past few decades, rates of food insecurity, poverty and homelessness have increased in every province and territory.

The charitable sector emerged to fill these gaps, and now, a large percentage of our country’s 170,000 charitable and non-profit organizations seek to improve the health and well-being of low-income Canadians. Unfortunately, these same organizations can often replicate the same harmful structures that they’re seeking to challenge.

I see it everywhere: frontline community workers earning minimum wage and being denied overtime pay while undertaking emotionally and physically challenging work. A culture of short-term contracts that provides little stability for workers and forces them to constantly be on the hunt for the next income source. And a lack of transparency from management around who’s being paid what, and why.

Community work is often feminized and racialized in this country, and our patriarchal systems devalue it. However, while the issues of how patriarchy and racism are embedded in our workplaces are complex, many of the solutions don’t have to be: non-profits have lots of tools at their disposal to disrupt this culture of exploitation.

Here are a few ideas.

Examine your attitudes

The non-profit sector is often said to run on passion, and while many workers do feel a deep personal connection to their work, they’re workers just like anyone else. They still need to eat and pay for their shelter!

Non-profit leaders need to examine whether they’re buying into this culture of burnout by constantly encouraging their workers to do more with less. This isn’t resourcefulness – it’s a recipe for ongoing exploitation.

Put the cost of wages back into your fundraising

We do our colleagues a deep disservice when we make statements to the public like “A $1 donation buys a meal for a person in need.” Frankly, there is no possible way that that could be true. $1 may cover the cost of ingredients, but who made that meal? Who served it, who supervised the space, and who cleaned up afterward? What were their hourly wages? An immense amount of labour has now been erased in service of a sales-inspired donation pitch.

When the public is primed to believe that charities can operate on pennies, they’ll believe that the labour of non-profit workers should be priced accordingly. As a result, organizations scramble to make up the gaps between what’s been funded (the food) and what hasn’t (the workers). If we want to provide our workers with liveable wages, we need to push back on donors who only wish to fund projects – not the people who make them happen. We need to be transparent about the true cost of labour, and advocate for the importance of decent and liveable work.

Take a close look at management pay

The 100 top CEOs in Canada’s corporate sector now earn an average of $10.8 million, more than 200 times that of the average worker. The nonprofit sector has nowhere near a gap that large, but I still encourage leaders to examine why they’re paying themselves so much more than their program staff.

Do you have a policy that ties the wages of your lowest-earning and highest-earning workers to a certain ratio? When a surplus comes your way, is it directed towards improving the conditions of your lowest-paid workers, or to providing bonuses to your fundraising, finance and executive teams? Having these policies in place can dramatically improve the wellbeing of workers across the organizational chart.

Offer other supplements

it’s not just about salaries. If your budget restricts you from increasing wages, then explore other ways to create income security. Offer paid holiday time (that people are actually encouraged to take), parental and sick leave, steady work hours, and clear scheduling so that workers are not constantly left on-call. I also encourage leaders to explore the many benefits that have been made available to the sector, such as the Ontario Nonprofit Network’s sector-specific pension plan, and a slew of others.

Provide pay transparency

Finally, I understand that it’s not always possible to provide the income and benefits that you’d like to offer prospective employees. But hiding this information behind a labour-intensive application process isn’t doing anyone any favours. Disclosing salary is an important way to allow candidates to determine whether they can afford to work at your organization, and it avoids putting women and racialized candidates at a deep disadvantage when they’re later asked to offer a figure for their desired salary.


Stacey Newman/Handout

Paul Taylor is the executive director of FoodShare Toronto, a non-profit that advocates for food justice by supporting community-based food initiatives. He is the leadership lab columnist for April 2021.

This column is part of Globe Careers’ Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about the world of work. Find all Leadership Lab stories at tgam.ca/leadershiplab and guidelines for how to contribute to the column here.

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