Last winter, I was invited by a friend to attend the gala of the Service Board (TSB), a nonprofit organization that mentors teens to conquer personal and cultural challenges through public service and outdoor adventure. As it was event season, I had recently attended several soirées for Seattle nonprofits, but this was my first introduction to TSB.The crowd was much younger than is typical for a fundraising event and all were incredibly energized. The theme of the night was a winter semi-formal. Many were dressed in their best winter cocktail dresses and many looked like they stepped right out of high school. As the live auction began, the energy grew. The MC sparkled and bids were followed by hollers of appreciation. The energy never let down.
When the auction ended, the executive director, Ashley Miller, was invited to the stage. By the cheers in the crowd it might have been a celebrity athlete that was being welcomed to the stage. Instead, a tall redhead greeted the audience, her demeanor overwhelmed by the response of the crowd. She approached the mic and attempted a couple broken “thank you's,” but the crowd would not let up. As I looked at the woman with tears in her eyes and hands covering her mouth in gratitude, I realized she—in her twenties—was no older than me. She took advantage of a small break in the applause and began by thanking the crowd and acknowledging her overwhelming emotions.
Once Miller found her feet and the crowd settled, she announced to those who did not know that this marked her last event as executive director at the Service Board. She spoke about the history of her time at TSB: stepping into a role at 24 without prior executive director experience, facing the decision of having to close a program, and merging two centers together. Her honest description of the experience was authentically raw.
Throughout her speech, her tears never let up, but she remained eloquent. She began thanking her team, describing their tireless efforts to continue a program that was in financial turmoil. Yet everyone lived and breathed the mission which drove all their decisions. Despite the staff's passion, reality sets in: passion doesn’t pay the bills. Retention was a huge issue at TSB where Ashley saw nine program directors rotate through in eight years. Everyone seemingly enjoyed working at TSB, but the pay was not enough to keep even the most dedicated employees. At first, you make the low salary work, but as the bills stack up, you scrounge to afford minimum payments. The thought of a vacation is just a fantasy and you wonder how much longer you can survive. As a diligent leader, Ashley recognized the impact low salaries had on her staff.
Catching me off-guard and sparking my interest, Ashley made an unexpected call to action. Instead of asking donors to support the Service Board's programming she called on them to support her staff. Taking note of her young, savvy donor base, Ashley recognized an opportunity and called on the crowd to help her raise $100,000 to invest in her staff. The response was overwhelmingly supportive. People were excited, and Ashley secured a $15,000 match to her personal donation. Though many supported Ashley's endeavor, raising money for salaries is traditionally taboo in the nonprofit sector.
If you've been in the nonprofit world for a little while, you probably already understand the 80/20 rule: 80% of funds support programming, while the remaining 20% is sparsely spread to cover administrative costs. That 20% cap holds the ceiling to our salaries. We are well versed on how many words we can cram onto a single page in order to save money on ink and paper. We keep track of office supplies and do not use anything more than we must. Working in direct services like TSB, I have felt the burden of the 20%. I worked a less-than-ideal schedule, often well over 40 hours a week, and one paycheck alone doesn't cover my rent. The 20% lingers over us—a constant burden hindering our ability to retain talent. Ashley noted the unpopularity of raising funds to invest in staff, but also recognized that the donor landscape is changing.
Foundations may not support an investment in staff yet, but it is clear that donors are beginning to understand the necessity. At TSB, like most direct service youth organizations, consistency is key. At-risk youth are far too familiar with adults moving in and out of their lives. But more importantly, turnover is expensive. It can take a whole year for someone to get comfortable in their new job, and the time and resources required to constantly train new staff can bring an organization to a standstill. And consistency is only attainable when you can pay for it. The only proven way to keep talent is to invest in it.
I was incredibly inspired by Ashley’s call to action. When I met up with her just over a month later, she informed me that they had raised $75,000 towards investing in staff and the number continued to rise. Her call to action was bold. The response from her donor base indicates a craving for a shift in how we view nonprofit funding. Ashley’s bravery and its positive reception give me hope for the future of the nonprofit sector.