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AP Perspectives: Creating and Investing in Equitable Structures

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Over the last few months, you may have noticed social posts or articles around pay equity and how long it takes women of color, especially Black and Hispanic women to earn an equivalent salary to a white man doing the same job. These “Equal Pay Days” are not celebrations, but rather a reminder of how the employers in our country continue to fail their most vulnerable employees through systematic underpayment and exploitation. 

I applaud the work AFP is doing to shine a light on these issues in our own sector. I, like other Black and Brown fundraisers, could write an entire article detailing how my work has been repeatedly undervalued and underpaid over the course of my career, but that’s not what I’m here to do today.

Instead, I want to challenge you, my fellow AFP members. While we condemn historic unfair practices outside our walls, are we checking our own behavior? 

Last year, Advancement NW, the AFP chapter serving the greater Seattle region, began wrestling with our assumptions over volunteer roles and their compensation—or lack thereof. 

Those of us who have been in the nonprofit sector for a decade or two have been repeatedly told that volunteers are never paid—they are gifting their time and talents. And that sounds great, right? We are all “leaning in” to support causes which we care about. But that thinking hides harmful narratives about who has the financial stability to volunteer their time and who is paid fairly for their perceived expertise. 

Like many of your chapters, Advancement NW has been working to increase Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Access (DEIA) in our actions and offerings. But even with stronger statements or higher goals around representation, the numbers were difficult to move. Our DEIA committee brought forth a proposal for us to really VALUE this work—by putting our money behind it. 

Our chapter agreed to pay all 2021 conference presenters for their time. This approach, when coupled with a rule proposed by the Conference Committee to prohibit sessions led entirely by white speakers created a radically different lineup with many new faces and perspectives that had gone unheard in past years. Did this cost us more than an open call for volunteer presenters? Yes. Did it upset some long-time presenters? Also, yes. But it worked—as a result, we had a more diverse audience and welcomed many new fundraisers who had previously thought AFP could be a place for them. 

These were big steps, but our work isn’t done. We are currently drafting a policy around how we offer equitable compensation to board members. “But Maya, board members are volunteers!” Yes, we are. But we are burning out passionate team members and harming volunteers from historically oppressed communities when we demand that they show up repeatedly to do labor in ways that far outstrip our standard board duties. 

Let me give you an example of how this can work. A few months ago, Advancement NW learned that our management support company would be ending its contract with us. We hired board member Erika Lian Chen, a woman of color with expertise in search processes to lead the effort. This approach recognized the work was outside of Erika’s existing role as the VP of our DEIA Committee and honored the skillset and time she shared with us. 

You might be thinking, “Wait! What about conflict of interest rules?” Good point. We aren’t forbidden to hire board members, but when we do, that member must recuse themselves from the vote. Our board voted once to hire Erika and then again to approve the hourly rate and to set a cap on the total number of hours. Erika tracked her hours and submitted invoices for approval in the same way we would require of any other vendor. 

Why not just ask Erika to be a team player and do the work for free? As a consultant, Erika doesn’t have a full-time organization paying for her membership or volunteer time. She was able to voice that she didn’t have the capacity to add another unpaid project. Too often, board members, especially Women of Color, feel pressured to say “yes” for the good of the whole. The contract allowed our organization to move forward quickly, thoughtfully, and in a values-aligned manner without relying on our overburdened leadership team—a win for everyone, even if it costs us a bit more. 

We cannot keep doing the same things and expecting different results. Leaning into our commitment to Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Access requires that we challenge the assumptions and rules that we know. And today, I challenge my fellow chapters to reexamine your budget. How are you investing in change? Who is missing from your board or membership and how are you using your dollars to compensate people who are sharing their stories and expertise with you? 

It’s time for us to put our money where our values are.

Maya Hemachandra, MPA, CFRE, is the chief development officer at Treehouse in Seattle. As Chief Development Officer, Maya leads Treehouse’s work to engage donors, volunteers, and funders as partners in creating positive change for youth experiencing foster care. She has served the Pacific Northwest for nearly 20 years, raising millions of dollars to build a more inclusive community through Solid Ground, United Way of Snohomish County, Women’s Funding Alliance, and Seattle Goodwill. She is currently serving as the president-elect for AFP Advancement Northwest. 

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