Is Your Nonprofit’s HR Sabotaging Your Mission?

Many Fail on Living Wages, Women’s Equality, and Racial Equity

Johanna Tatlow
5 min readApr 1, 2021
A wooden house leans precariously to the right in a bucolic field.
Photo by Gilles Desjardins on Unsplash

A nonprofit designs programming for poverty elimination. They don’t pay their entry level workers a living wage.

A nonprofit touts programing that will empower women. Their staff handbook has no childbirth leave policy.

A nonprofit declares that their work will advance racial equality. Their staff of 100 only has 1 Black person.

I’ve seen organizations working in Sub-Saharan Africa that didn’t have any Africans on their teams.

I — AM — SO — TIRED — OF — THIS!

I worked for seven years in the nonprofit space. I rarely had an employer take good care of me, as a woman or a person. I was praised consistently for my performance. But I was never presented with a plan for advancement. I was never encouraged to apply to more senior positions. One employer refused to invest in training me, even when I begged for it.

I left the nonprofit space mid-pregnancy. My employee handbook had no provisions for maternity leave, and the employer wasn’t willing for me to work remotely, even when the job easily allowed it.

Now, with a Master’s degree on international development and nonprofit management, I am looking at the nonprofit job market again. It is discouraging. How do nonprofits expect to achieve their mission for the world if they aren’t even achieving it in their own organization?

Instead of cultivating the best possible teams in their quest to save the world, many nonprofits give lackluster and flimsy excuses. Here is why the top excuses on each of these issues don’t work for me anymore.

The Donor Excuse

One excuse is that “donors expect a low overhead”. But, please, paying a living wage isn’t overhead. It’s the cost of operations. A decent benefits package isn’t overhead. It is investment. It prevents rapid staff turnover, which can be deadly expensive in both money and operational continuity.

If donors are holding you back, find new donors. Donors who really care about your mission will recognize the need to fix the “in house” problems. There are loads of people out there who would love to join you in funding a fair, forward-thinking power team.

Tell your donors: change starts with us. They will believe that. They will pay for that. They will feel privileged in being included in changing the world.

The Small Business Excuse

In the US, small businesses aren’t expected to allow people to go on long family leave — even unpaid — because it would interrupt operations too much. A lot of nonprofits run lean, relying on volunteers to get things done instead of paid staff. Because the number of people on payroll is so low, they then qualify as small businesses.

But even a small business can hire a temporary staff person to cover maternity leave, or better yet, parental leave for any gender. If you plan for it, you can make it happen. You can write it into the benefits portion of your expenses, save up, and make it available when needed. Don’t expect women to negotiate for this “when it comes up.” Plan ahead and communicate ahead of time. You should expect your staff to start families. Most people do.

Your other option is for the moms on staff to quit. Frankly, that’s what is going to happen if you don’t offer maternity leave. They might not quit right away, but as soon as a more flexible option comes their way, they will take it. You’ll have high turnover among your younger female staff. That will mean that fewer get promoted. And then you’ll notice an imbalance of the genders — or of parenthood status — at the director level.

The “Most Qualified” Excuse

The other, and often far more glaring, staffing discrepancy is the White to Black ratio. If I have to scroll down three times on the “Our Team” webpage before I see an African-American in the frame, then you have a problem. If you have 60% Black staff at the entry-level, 30% at the mid-career level, and 10% at the top, you also have a problem. In fact, take a look at your board. I’m looking at it. Because even if you have great diversity at the bottom, if the people at the top are all White men over the age of 60, you have some problems.

That problem is even worse if you also have a long “equity and diversity” statement. And it’s doubly worse if you work in areas like the US South or Africa or on justice, education, or transportation problems. It means you know exactly what the problem is, but you haven’t invited anyone who is affected by the problem to the table. Since I know that there are grassroots organizers tackling all those areas on a volunteer basis, I know that there are dozens of solutions you could be hearing and networks you could be tapping, if only you would truly diversify your team.

You’ve hired the concerned do-gooders with the “proper” credentials. They probably graduated from a top school. Nothing wrong with that. I did too. But the more affected someone is by inequality, the harder it is for them to get the “proper” education and credentials. You are supposed to know that when you work in that space. And you are supposed to work around that to hire the people who are closest to the problem.

It might take a bit of extra effort. If you have an all-White team right now, you won’t be able to change that by hiring within your network. You’ll have to hire outside your network. You might have to anonymize your hiring process or ask a search firm to find people for you. You might have to tackle your whole communications strategy and your internal team culture. You might have to dissolve your organization and merge with a community group that is doing what you were hoping to do, but better.

But for the sake of your mission, you have to do something. Because you had better bet the communities you are serving notice the discrepancy. And you are not going to get far without their trust and input.

Simple Solutions

Hire good talent and treat them well.

To attract strong talent, you will need to pay them a fair wage. Don’t pay them a “comparable nonprofit wage”. Pay them the wage they would get if they used the same skills in the private sector or for your state government.

Provide a solid benefits package that will allow them to have and take care of their families. Not only will this benefit moms, it will also benefit people of color, who are far more likely to take a leave of absence to care for an elderly relative. (And that is a reason TO hire them, not to AVOID hiring them. You want people with good values and good relationships.)

Hire for creative thinking, good problem solving, and familiarity with the problems you are working on. Don’t hire word of mouth. Don’t rely on LinkedIn. Create a process that provides impartial vetting for applicants, one where you don’t see their picture or even their name. Develop career trajectory plans for every one of your employees. Set up a “points and contributions” method of promotions that will keep you from acting on your own biases.

If you can’t commit to the above, then get rid of the “equity and diversity” statement and own your problems. Believe me, they are plenty evident to everyone else already.



Johanna Tatlow

Freelance writer trying to make the world a better place