June 23, 2017; Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Nonprofits have played an interesting role in the struggle for higher, livable wages. We have seen university presidents give up pay so that their lowest-paid workers could receive a livable wage. On the other hand, when the proposed revisions to the federal overtime rules last year threatened to cause large increases in nonprofit salary expenditure, there were mixed feelings in the field. Some organizations rely on interns and minimally paid, overworked employees to achieve their worthy missions even in the face of data that indicates this method simply does not work. And yet, these same organizations may at the same time advocate for poor constituents.
Clearly, the nonprofit field has an awkward relationship with low-wage workers, but foundations may have found their role. Program officers from 19 foundations gathered at a Giant Eagle grocery store in Pittsburgh to take part in a three-day event focused on improving the lives of low-wage workers. The idea is to join efforts with existing coalitions to provide funding that supports workers’ rights campaigns, specifically encouraging employers to “raise the minimum wage, provide paid sick leave and create affordable housing trust funds.”
In theory, this sounds like a winning situation. Workers’ rights coalitions are made up of staff who understand the impact of not providing livable wages to employees; however, they lack the funds to create powerful campaigns. It can also be argued that these coalitions also fall short in having their campaigns supported and led by influential community members. Foundations, on the other hand, have plenty of both funds and influence and wish to positively impact their communities.
The application of this plan, however, may prove to be difficult. Foundations tend to be formed by wealthy families or individuals—people who, arguably, may benefit from keeping wages low. Further, the boards of such foundations tend to lean conservative. It seems doubtful that conservative boards would approve funding such progressive campaigns. Thus, it falls upon workers’ rights coalitions to seek out the correct mix of foundations that support a so-called “progressive radical” agenda and have the funds and access to influence needed to push these ideas through to implementation.—Sheela Nimishakavi