When your nonprofit’s mission is to ensure that the internet remains a public resource open and accessible to all, and most of your work takes place online, you might think the recent rise of remote work would make management and operations less complicated. At the Mozilla Foundation, where I work as COO, there is some truth in this. After all, many foundation staff worked remotely even before the COVID pandemic. And we do continue to grow. Today our nonprofit employs staff in more countries than ever, such as Zimbabwe, South Africa, and other parts of the world.
But growth brings new challenges.
As the foundation’s staff has expanded to about 100 people, we have struggled, like many others, to balance work and wellness. We have also been stirred by the long-overdue reckoning over race in the United States and sought in response to address racial equity more squarely in our work. With our staff now living and working across the world, racial justice today is an even more vital organizational concern.
How, for example, do you create a fair compensation scheme while hiring staff across the globe? It’s a huge challenge, and inequity abounds. We do not purport to have solved this problem ourselves, but we hope sharing our approach might be informative for other nonprofits, especially those like us who have staff living internationally.
Understanding the Scope of the Pay Equity Challenge
One realization that we had as we grew, and one that staff regularly reminded us of, was that our rapidly changing organization wasn’t providing the pay transparency our staff deserved. There was limited insight into what factors influenced salaries and to what degree.
Pay equity isn’t a single, discrete issue. Rather, pay equity reflects a nonprofit’s entire change management approach. This requires addressing big questions like:
- Are we pursuing equity internally in addition to externally?
- Is our compensation philosophy fair, given our geographic scope?
- Can our wellness benefits address COVID but also foster employee wellbeing long-term?
These kinds of dilemmas, of course, are common among international nonprofits. A pandemic coupled with the movement for Black lives deeply impacted the way nonprofits fit into the world. Many other organizations were adapting their external missions and messaging to this new landscape, too, re-focusing programs on issues like public health and racial equity.
Since 2020, many nonprofits have endeavored to diversify their staff. But a more diverse staff does not necessarily translate to equity.
In many ways, these were welcome changes: public health and racial equity deserve more attention. But nonprofit internal practices, like how they compensate employees, approach wellness, or ensure equity for staff, haven’t always kept pace. Often operations are stuck in 2019—a time before COVID, before the murder of George Floyd, and these events’ far-reaching effects.
For example, the rise of remote work means nonprofits can now hire employees across borders. This is a big opportunity, but geographic pay disparities and wildly different costs of living mean international teams often face compensation inequity. Staff may be underpaid or lack culturally relevant benefits.
This puts employees at a disadvantage, and it leaves the nonprofit in a precarious position: How can an organization deliver on its mission and retain credibility if it doesn’t live up to its own values?
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What We Have Learned about Equity
Since 2020, many nonprofits have endeavored to diversify their staff. But a more diverse staff does not necessarily translate to equity. Introspection and culture shift is needed, too.
In 2021, Mozilla embarked on a racial equity and belonging audit (REBA), advised by a consultant firm MMG Earth, consisting of a four-phase process: 1) Research and Discovery, 2) Discussion and Dialogue, 3) Design and Development, and 4) Action and Collaboration. We used qualitative interviews, data, and external consultants to measure aspects of belonging, antiracism, and antioppression while centering experiences of staff who of the Global Majority—Black, African, Asian, Latinx, Indigenous, and other staff of color—disabled staff, caregivers, parents, and LGBTQIA+.
What we learned from this process is reflected in part in what we see in the world at large: inequity. For example, staff reported they lacked clear policies and/or guidelines for identifying harm and seeking repair. And several staff members raised pay equity as a primary concern. But the findings also revealed strengths, like an overall staff commitment to racial and social justice work.
Our next step was creating an action plan, which is now underway. We developed three impact areas: gender and racial justice, accessibility, and harm reduction (mental health). We hired a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion lead, established a DEI working group, onboarded a global compensation consultant, and more.
A compensation philosophy is the bedrock of how and why a nonprofit determines staff’s salaries and benefits. Ideally, it reflects a nonprofit’s values.
Changing Our Compensation Philosophy
A compensation philosophy is the bedrock of how and why a nonprofit determines staff salaries and benefits. Ideally, it reflects a nonprofit’s values and position in the world.
Our previous compensation philosophy dated back to 2017—a significantly different time for both Mozilla and the world. We had a smaller staff in just four countries, and our philosophy had only three tenets: 1) attract top talent through competitive pay; 2) align pay with the foundation’s culture and mission; 3) match pay with individual and organizational performance.
In 2023, this simple three-pronged approach no longer made sense. Our staff had grown by about 25 percent, and it now spans nine countries and many cities, each with distinct costs of living. And our scope has also changed significantly in those six years to be more ambitious and wide ranging. Staff rightly felt the philosophy was myopic.
We undertook a major research initiative to address this. First, we combed through market data on similar organizations around the globe to set fair benchmarks. We also developed a new approach to determining base salaries, drawing on the cost of labor and the cost of living.
Often, geographical weighting in compensation addresses the pricey metropolitan areas but lacks a strategy on the flip side—staff in countries with less expensive markets. Our team’s solution was to create a compensation “floor.” This means that no one at the nonprofit can earn less than 60 percent of the base rate, even if local labor market rates would suggest less. This is uncommon and deviates from normal practices among international organizations, but we felt it was necessary to achieve equity. We wanted to challenge entrenched notions of “fair” compensation in these markets. The often dramatically lower wage rates paid by international nonprofits to staff based in the Global South both reflect the history of colonization and reinforce systemic inequity.
To build trust, we also made our compensation philosophy radically transparent. It should be crystal clear that staff receive reasonable and equitable compensation without regard to race, ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation, political affiliation, or other characteristics not relevant to performance. Now, all employees have insight into the organization’s 18 career levels and how to advance through them. And we’ve continued to make salary bands public for all positions.
Learnings on Wellness
The last few years have changed how society, employees, and employers think about wellness and health. Mozilla, like many other organizations, began to address this shift step by step as the pandemic progressed, acknowledging that no one had a playbook for how to work in a pandemic.
In the early stages of the pandemic, our nonprofit offered new supports: We provided paid leave for those with COVID or caring for family with COVID and paid time off for vaccination. We offered a COVID cash supplement that could be used to buy medical supplies, get groceries delivered, or even donate to local organizations that needed support. We canceled all work travel. And we started what we called wellness Fridays, urging staff not to schedule meetings on Fridays; we also began providing Fridays off in the summer between early July and early September.
Staff welcomed this support, and we were determined not to let it dissipate when the pandemic began to recede. The importance of health and wellness at work was top of mind, and we wanted to capture that spirit and make long-term changes to our organization. So today, more than three years after the pandemic’s start, many of these initiatives remain intact, like wellness Fridays. All in-person events are now completely optional for staff who are uncomfortable traveling, and we are committed to always providing remote participation options. We realize how taxing travel can be for employees: perhaps they have weakened immune systems, or children or elderly parents they care for at home.
There are lessons from the pandemic, and the challenge is to learn them not just in theory, but to implement them in practice.
The pandemic also spurred other evolutions in how we approach wellness. One way this manifested was by changing how Mozilla approaches sick days. Before the pandemic, all staff had 20 days of annual leave for both vacation and sick time. But the pandemic taught us that some individuals are more vulnerable and prone to sickness than others. So, we introduced an additional 10 sick days on top of the 20 days of annual leave—and staff no longer must forfeit vacation time to take a sick day.
We also increased our annual stipend for “Global Wellness,” a program that reimburses employees for medical visits and gym memberships, camping gear, spa treatments, bike accessories, plants, and more. This allows staff to pursue a healthier lifestyle in a way that suits them, whether that be visits to the psychologist, acupuncture appointments, or both. The Global Wellness program is also about something bigger: acknowledging the need for more mental health support today and the fact that many insurance providers don’t cover these costs.
Building the Nonprofits That We Need
Throughout the pandemic, in my role as chief operating officer, I shared weekly COVID and wellness emails with staff, being vulnerable about my own experiences while acknowledging the differences in how we each deal with the challenges. The goal: to show staff that they weren’t alone and that even the organization’s leadership personally struggled amid the crisis.
There are lessons from the pandemic, and the challenge is to learn them not just in theory, but to implement them in practice. This is easier said than done, but I hope our experiences offer a window into some of the dilemmas—and the opportunities—that lie ahead.
Bottom line: it’s essential that nonprofit compensation and other inner workings—like health benefits and equity initiatives—match nonprofits’ principles. A nonprofit that cannot honor its own values is a nonprofit set up for failure. Alternatively, an organization that lives its values is not only doing the right thing but is also setting itself up to attract top talent and maximize impact in the world.