Opinion

Rethinking how nonprofits pay their workforce

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I live on Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn – it is a big, broad street that was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, and was, in fact, the world's first parkway. At the time of its construction in the 1870s, Eastern Parkway went to the eastern edge of Brooklyn, hence its name. Today it runs from Park Slope to Bushwick.

I am all the way at one end of the parkway in Prospect Heights, close to Park Slope and several other lovely and well-resourced neighborhoods. From my 9th floor window this month, I can see four different COVID-19 testing sites. There is a New York City Health and Human Service (HHS) site set up in the central branch of the Brooklyn Public Library. There is a converted bus serving as a testing site, which parks 10 yards up Eastern Parkway from the library. There is a testing tent set up at the entrance to Prospect Park, about a half a block to the right of the library, and a testing tent set up in front of the Brooklyn Botanical Garden, about a block to the left.

The first day the site opened in the library, I got on line to ger tested. I ran into a neighbor coming home and told her where I had been – and that I was going to go share the news that the site had opened on my apartment buildings’ listserve. “Don’t tell anyone!” she cautioned me, “or else the line will be longer for us.”

There is very rarely a line at any of those four places, and when I hear about the need for testing across the city, it is hard to believe that serving my block so bounteously is a good use of resources. I tried to call and email my City Council person to check whether there was anyone coordinating testing services – and whether some of these tents could be better deployed in other parts of the city. No response. I called 311, and after I explained my question several times, they put me into a long voice mail loop within the HHS system, which outlasted my resolve. I called a friend who works at the library, who told me that there had been no bigger picture conversation or context from the city when their site opened up. A few days later he texted me to say that the van outside the library is a for-profit business, and has no connection to the testing site 30 feet away from it. 

I complained to my family and friends a bit, and then I let it go – after all, my neighbor was right – the fewer people who were accessing the service, the shorter the wait time for me. My muscles for demanding less for myself are not well-used. Both personally and professionally, my focus is on taking care of my family, my block, my organization, my cause – rather than asking for a reallocation to share some of what I’ve got with others. 

I was reminded of the COVID-19 testing supply question when I read about the work that the Vega Mala Consulting has been doing around transforming the non-profit workplace, and the tools they are developing to address racial inequities. Specifically, they are using human resource innovations as a vehicle for reparative justice.

In one consulting project, the Vega Mala team was made up of four individuals from different racial, identity and social-economic backgrounds. To divide the amount they were being paid for the project, they devised a process that looked not just at work products or hours put in, but used a much more careful and complicated rubric. You should read the whole piece – I found it mind-expanding -- but here is the gist:

The Vega Mala consultants had the experience and acute awareness of, “especially with the world of organizational development and diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) consulting, how much of a gap can exist between what consultants tell organizations to do, but don’t practice themselves. Namely, as our team was supporting a white-led, multi-racial organization with long-time grievances about titles, advancement, and unequal pay among staff of color, we needed to do our own work to ensure that there was pay equity within our own consultant team.”

Rather than dividing the payment for a project by the number of hours each person worked – they asked: What are the values we want reflected in the distribution of dollars? The values they named included: Historical discrimination;Net worth (wealth, not income); The number of people supported through this income;Emotional labor required;Monthly expenses;; and distributed and anticipated inheritance..

“At the end of the conversation we were led to a much more complex set of factors than standard hourly billing could account for, and we recognized, at this stage, we needed to generate a tool to help us identify our individual rates.”

Mala Vega is now working to create tools and processes to support other organizations in making similar calculations that look at individual background, resources, history and need, as well as role. It is a huge adjustment in how we all work and think, and one that could lead to a more equitable distribution of earnings among the workforce within our sector. I have to admit that I thought twice before sharing the Mala Vega work here, in this public venue. If we start using this kind of tool as a sector, it will be more aligned with my values, but as a person lucky enough to have inherited wealth, I will earn less. And if I am being honest, my first reaction is that I don’t want to earn less. 

But on Eastern Parkway, I lost the focus and commitment to keep trying to remedy the situation of unequal distribution of testing resources and I may well pay the price for it. Even if my end of Eastern Parkway has a low rate of COVID-19, the virus won’t go away if the folks on the Bushwick end of the Parkway don’t have the same (let alone those in Queens, the Bronx, Montana, Florida, Africa or India…). Like it or not, the better we take care of each other, the better life will be for ourselves. That is clearly the case with COVID-19, and I believe – with how we share all of the wealth.

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