5 Steps Toward Nonprofit Salary Transparency


I am preparing for a panel discussion on salary titled Low Pay, No Pay, and Poor Pay: Say No Way! at NEMA’s 100th annual meeting so I’ve thought a lot about issues surrounding what we’re paid and why. It’s a tricky subject, and like most things in life, where you stand is informed by where you sit. Board members and some directors tend to err on the side of lower is better. Staff, especially those plagued with graduate school loans, are often shocked by how low salaries are but don’t know what to do. And salaries, perhaps even more than #MeToo issues, are almost never talked about.

Last May I participated in DivCom’s Open Forum at AAM. Not surprisingly, my table talked about the gender gap. In the course of that discussion, one participant told us what she makes which led to everyone sharing salaries. It was easy to do because we didn’t know each other well, nor did we really know each other’s organizations. It’s different when you’re sharing salary information with colleagues from your own workplace. Recently a new hire at my workplace told a colleague what she makes. She wasn’t asked, she just offered. Like an image you can’t unsee, knowing something that many workplaces ask you to keep private is difficult to forget. Instead, like a splinter, it can be an irritant.

Secrecy surrounding salaries benefits organizations more than individuals. It allows organizations to bargain harder for someone they really want who demands more than what’s offered. It allows for negotiations and counter offers should a prize employee say she’s leaving. It also covers up all sorts of bias, unconscious and otherwise, making it impossible to know whether women of color are paid 40-percent less or more.

But what would happen if everyone knew everything? Discovering you’re underpaid is a sure way to make employees want to leave. It’s also a great way to reduce productivity. Why should I go the extra mile when you think I’m worth so little especially compared to employee X who makes more than I do and whose life is a permanent coffee break? It can also make employees rise up and lobby for change. It’s hard to forget MOMA’s workers descending the main staircase last summer protesting contract negotiations. Maybe a massive organization with a gazillion dollar endowment like MOMA can sustain that, but can yours?

For anyone who works for a state or federal organization salary transparency is old hat, but for the many who don’t it’s one of the last places where privacy abounds. You negotiate that salary (or don’t and regret it later), you work for it, and perhaps you negotiate your raises. Would you be happier if you knew what your colleagues make? And if you’re a leader is this a place you and your board want to go? If so, here are some things to consider:

  1. Know where you are in the regional or national museum job market. Does your organization lead, lag or match?
  2. Find the gaps. Look for the gaps created by age, race and gender. It’s likely you have them since they are there for the world to see on AAM’s salary survey. Make a plan and adjust.
  3. Most people think they are better at their job than they really are. Determine how your organization measures performance. Then determine how your organization rewards stellar performance, and what constitutes unacceptable performance. Hint: Measuring performance is not waiting until a lackluster employee decamps.
  4. Look at the total package. Who on your staff gets the opportunities? Who travels, who speaks, who gets sent for further training? How does the museum help with that? Are those opportunities open to all?
  5. You may want to begin by creating a salary banding program where jobs are grouped and ranked, and salaries within a specific group are listed as a range.

Is this a big step? You betcha. Is it done outside of public institutions in the museum world? Not that we know of. Will it help? We believe it will. Museums run on people. Good staff make great museums, and good staff deserve equitable salaries. Organizations who are open about the fact they are closing the gender gap, conscious of performance measures, and creating opportunities for personal growth, are the organizations that will attract the best and most diverse employees. They are the ones that will not only survive, but thrive.

Tell us what you think.

Joan Baldwin

Image: PwC, “The Reward of Gender Pay Equity Through the Lens of Data and Analytics,” 2016. Accessed October 22, 2018.

3 Comments on “5 Steps Toward Nonprofit Salary Transparency”

  1. I’m on the board of a state museum association. Our board has discussed the issue but did not vote not to post if there was no salary. One member of the board works for a regional state university and said policy forbid them from posting salary information. Any thoughts about how to deal with that situation?

    • Linda–
      If I understand you correctly, despite the lead taken by AASLH, NEMA, and the Emerging Museum Professionals Group, your state museum association decided to shy away from requiring job postings be accompanied by a salary or salary range. True? And that one of the things that held them back was a board member saying that his employer–the state university system–doesn’t post salary information. I just took a quick look at several state university system job sites (including the flagship for what I think is your state) and they all post salary or salary band information so I’m puzzled. That said, I would add that posting a range saves time. It eliminates people who won’t move to your area to take a job for what they deem is too low a salary. It also may attract people who a) like the transparency of salary ranges and b) the idea that an organization is value driven enough to post them. It is discouraging that AAM is still way behind on this issue, but maybe your organization should revisit this issue sometime soon. Just FYI, here is what NEMA says about posting job announcements:

      “Please share salary and wage information!
      You help improve the museum field, as well as your own hiring experience, by providing a salary range or wage information on your job listing. We strongly encourage you to include salary ranges because pay transparency at the onset of the hiring process helps promote equity in the workforce. Demonstrate your commitment to transparency and equity in our field by including wage information. Thank you for your leadership!
      Good luck.

  2. Michael Holland says:

    When considering the possibility of salary transparency in your organization, if your initial reaction is one of aversion, it might be worth exploring the basis for that reaction. If there is concern that staff members learning how much each other are paid might not respond favorably, maybe that in itself is indicative of a problem.

    While equity is important, I think that for many the issue isn’t necessarily that someone else is paid more than they are, (I think that most reasonable people would expect that not all salaries will or should be exactly the same) it’s that they themselves simply are not paid enough.

    When considering equity/parity, it might be best to first aim any corrective actions at sustainability. One mid-level staff member might be miffed when she learns that another in a similar position makes more than she does (and her concerns may be valid), but as long as there are people down the hall that have to get a second job in order to supplement their salary, or who cannot afford to stay in the job they’re in and leave, the overall sustainability of the museum suffers.

    Thanks for keeping this topic on the radar screen!


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