By Jessica Mele, Executive Dirctor

The post is a response to Ira Hirschfield’s blog post on Stanford Social Innovation Review, “Investing in Leadership to Accelerate Philanthropic Impact.”

I am so pleased to see foundations like the Haas, Jr. Fund investing in leadership development in the nonprofit field. It is true that in the last 30 years, the demands on nonprofits by their funders – for accountability, professionalism and high quality programming – have increased as the field has grown. Gone are the days when you would receive a $100k grant, no questions asked (Can you believe this used to happen? It did to Performing Arts Workshop in 1967!).

As a result, many foundations are investing in leadership development at nonprofits to support those organizations in meeting high expectations. I have been the recipient of these kinds of investments. As a new ED, I participated in the Community Arts Education Leadership Institute (CAELI) through the National Guild for Community Arts Education. The program taught me not to neglect my own leadership development as I took on the responsibility of running an organization.

Now, over three years later, and on the eve of our 50th anniversary, I am reflecting on leadership development a lot. I have hired young leaders, been nurtured myself as a young leader, and seen many good leaders leave this organization or the field as a whole for a myriad of reasons. Here’s where I am with this conversation: I believe that investment in leadership development in the nonprofit field will only go so far without investment in pay and benefits for those who work in the field.

The work we do is important. “Nonprofits collectively employ more Americans than the construction, finance, and insurance industries combined. In many states, nonprofit employment exceeds 10 percent of the workforce and represents one of the top two or three industries.” (Council of Nonprofits) And yet, pay is between 20-30% lower than that of the private sector. And benefits don’t even come close to comparison with the private sector.

Here in San Francisco, the cost of living has never been higher in our 50 year history. And I regret to say that our salaries have not kept pace with those costs. We are not alone.This issue is particularly acute in small to mid-sized organizations (below $2m), where staff is thin, pay is low, and the work is no less demanding. However, I believe that nonprofits – and particularly, the funders who support them, must make a stand when it comes to investment in the workforce, by advocating for a living wage for nonprofit workers.

Equally important is investment in retirement planning – something that small organizations have little capacity to do. There is no shortage of comparison studies of nonprofit pay and benefits. As an employer, I review these annually with my board members. Our salaries seem in line with other organizations of our size. But, is that good enough? If salaries across the board are low, are we holding ourselves to an appropriate standard?

Lack of investment in nonprofit pay and benefits ensures that only those with means will enter and stay in the profession. Support for fair and livable wages for nonprofit workers ensures a diverse workforce that will stay for the long haul. It seems that any meaningful discussion about leadership development in the nonprofit field must include a conversation about pay and benefits.