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Salary negotiable.

Six plus years ago brilliant writer, nonprofit leader, and humorist Vu Le published an article that resonated deeply with those of us in the sector: "When you don't disclose salary range on a job posting, a unicorn loses its wings."

It's still true today.

I'd also like to add: "When you only post a salary minimum, you discourage candidates from applying."

..and: "Salary negotiable is our way of saying we pay women and/or those from underrepresented communities less money because we're going to force them to negotiate and not actually disclose what the salary should be and what we could actually pay." (Read more about that in this article from Harvard Law School.)

Also, "When you pay people what was a good salary when you started working 35+ years ago, you're forgetting to adjust for inflation."

"If we don’t begin to reimagine arts funding, if we don’t start seeing things like a livable wage, health insurance, and childcare as base requirements rather than perks to be achieved, if we don’t collectively internalize that equity, diversity, inclusion, and belonging don’t start and end with a statement but rather must be sewn into the fabric of our workplace culture, we will continue to see an exodus."
Bear Bellinger, Production on Deck, "Eliminating Excuses"

My first job after finishing grad school at University of Wisconsin-Madison paid $45,000/year. It was 2006. I had a boatload of student loans, had just earned by MA in Business Administration from the Bolz Center in the Wisconsin School of Business, and was looking for a one bedroom apartment. I ended up finding a place in a 1950s 4-unit building for $900/month, all utilities and covered parking included. My rent was 1/3 of my take home pay but it was in a safe neighborhood and convenient for commuting to work. That said, even then, I was living in Madison, WI and paying more than 30% of my take home income for rent.

Fast forward to 2022. That same job, one requiring a bachelor's degree, with a master's degree preferred, would need to pay about $64,000/year to match inflation. How many jobs have you seen posted that require a master's degree and several years of experience and pay less than $65,000? A lot.

Now let's think about what Madison, WI was like in 2006 vs what Madison is like in 2022. That same modest one bedroom (living room, eat-in kitchen, small bathroom, 1 bedroom, 2 closets) that rented in 2006 for $900/month (and probably has not been updated in any way since) would easily go for $1,500/month today and something a bit nicer is well over $2,000/month. Take home pay in Wisconsin for a $64K salary is $4,026/month. So, now, in 2022, if you were paid $64,000/year, and would like to live in a 1 bedroom apartment in a similar neighborhood in Madison, WI, you'd budget 50% of your take home pay for rent.

Vu Le's 2015 post generated quite a bit of conversation and he followed up five years later with "Not showing the salary range in job postings is archaic and inequitable. So why do we keep doing it?" The two points that stand out the most to me are 1) Fear about causing tension between existing staff and new staff. and 2) Embarrassment that we're paying too little.

1) If you're afraid that paying someone an equitable salary will cause disruption among the ranks, you might need to look at your pay structure and put together a plan to "lift all boats." Rather than adding another giant project and heaping more work on your staff, maybe you could refocus some of your fundraising efforts to provide better wages, salaries, and benefits for your existing staff. Why keep buying into the myth that donors, sponsors, and supporters will only fund shiny things? What if paying livable wages to your staff and supporting members of the community was the shiny thing?

2) Embarrassment. Many companies are stuck in a rut - we've got our annual budget and this is how things have always been and we can't spend money on staff when we need to spend it on mission-driven programs. 1) The quality of your programs will suffer if your staff are burned out and/or if you have high turnover. and 2) We have to get past the expectation that nonprofits will only budget 15% or 20% for "administrative overhead." What other businesses could survive if they only budgeted 15% for staff salaries? If you haven't seen Dan Pallotta's Ted Talk, "The way we think about charity is dead wrong," watch it here. Now consider, what your company would look like if you invested in your staff, if people felt valued, and if you were proud to announce what you pay folks.

One more thing to consider if you're an employer who will be posting a job opportunity. How many times have you heard "We just aren't getting the quality and/or quantity of candidates we expected?" or "Where have all the [insert name of job] gone?" Bear Bellinger, arts advocate and staff member at Production on Deck (a hiring firm whose practices are based in promoting equity, diversity, inclusion, and belonging), recently wrote an article about the struggle in the arts and entertainment industry as theatre companies try to reopen and can't find production staff to fill positions for company staff and project-based work.

While the survey completed by Production on Deck staff and Porsche McGovern is specific to the theatre industry, the findings can be more broadly applied to work in nonprofit, education, and other sectors. I'll close by echoing Bellinger's brilliant, but harrowing conclusion. If leadership's words about equity and inclusion are not reflected in actions, we risk losing the ability to provide those things that bring quality of life to our communities. As the saying goes, "Show me your budget and I'll tell you what you value."


"When you don’t disclose salary range on a job posting, a unicorn loses its wings." | Author: Vu Le | Publication: Nonprofit AF | June 1, 2015

"Counteracting Negotiation Biases Like Race and Gender in the Workplace" | Author: Program on Negotiation staff, Harvard University | Harvard Law School Blog | November 19, 2020

Inflation Calculator | The Dollar Times

Madison is a great place for Millennials if you can afford to live here. | Author: Howard Hardee | Publication: The Isthmus | August 22, 2019

"Not showing the salary range in job postings is archaic and inequitable. So why do we keep doing it?" | Author: Vu Le | Publication: Nonprofit AF | September 14, 2020

3"The way we think about charity is dead wrong." | Author: Dan Pallotta | Publication: Ted Talks | February 2013


Where is all the Production Staff?" | Author: Bear Bellinger, Production on Deck | Publication: Projection, Lights & Staging News | February 2022


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