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Back in 2021 – at the height of the pandemic and as many organizations looked for ways to cut back – Choose 180, a Seattle non-profit, raised staffer salaries to $70,000. “For some of the organization’s 24 staff, the pay hikes amounted to a $20,000 annual raise in an instant, using existing funds” according to The Seattle Times. 

The organization was founded in 2011, in partnership with the district attorney to provide resources and support to local young people who become entangled with the criminal justice system. Today, their team is over 30 and it reported just over $2 million in revenue in 2021. 

So, how did they do it and what has the impact been on their organization and mission? We took some time to speak with Executive Director Sean Goode to gain insights and lessons for associations of any size. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What is Choose 180’s mission?

When young people have their behavior criminalized because they live in neighborhoods that are overly policed, they're typically sent to the prosecutor and then to the courts. But because of our relationship, they get community service instead of a courtroom. 

We're seeing grace instead of guilt and over 90% of the time, young people are not returning to the criminal legal system within 12 months of participating in our programming. We also work with young people who are reentering the community after being incarcerated, support young people on their journey to become advocates for systemic change in the neighborhoods they live, love and thrive in, and are always finding unique intersecting moments to serve. 

And what does your team look like today?

It's been cool to grow this thing. Back in 2017, we were one full-time staff. Today, we have 31 full-time staff, largely comprised of folks with lived experience who've been impacted by the criminal legal system, largely Black and brown folks, that are reflective of the population that we serve. 

We do have a strong contingency of volunteers, but at its best, it’s driven by people who are fully funded to do it. Because this work is difficult. This work is emotional. And this work is taxing. 

There's a lot of secondary trauma that can be taken on in this work. We do our best not only to have people with lived experience in the roles but to not further marginalize them by not resourcing them for their labor as they serve in those roles. 

That’s how the story came onto my radar. The Seattle Times wrote an article about Choose 180 raising full-time staffer salaries to $70,000. Can you tell me a little more about how that came about?

Folks who work in nonprofits typically love what they do because of the cause and the fact that they're close to impact. We had a lot of great things going for us as a Black-led nonprofit, doing impactful work that was highly visible and fostering a really intentional environment for people to come in and bring their whole selves and be received and coached and developed so they serve the community in a meaningful manner. 

Then the pandemic hit, and we no longer were doing programming in space with young people, and some of those cultural affirmations and programming affirmations began to slip away. 

We were losing some of the shiny veneer that was on the outside of what I thought was a beautiful vehicle for transformation, and it began to expose a little bit of the rust and underbelly. What we started to hear from staff, particularly our staff from the dominant culture because they felt more comfortable sharing, was that wages were too low and that it cost too much to live in our community. 

What was your response?

Initially, I just continued to dismiss it. It was easy for me to dismiss because I've gotten so far removed from being at that tension of not having enough or just barely getting by. Even though I can close my eyes and remember sleeping in my car when I worked at the Home Depot in our community, that seemed so far removed now that I'm in this executive director role with this executive director salary, and I don't have the same concerns or worries that I did when I was underpaid. 

I also have this internalized narrative I'm combating of, “well, you know, I worked the low wage nonprofit job, and you’ve got to earn your money, so you can do it too.” But I wasn't interrogating myself about why I had this narrative. 

Then we were working on budgets, and I was doing what I always tell our staff to do, which is dream big, put whatever you want in the budget, and we'll scale it back. And one of our team members said, “you know, I can't imagine adding staff when we're underpaying the staff that we currently have.” 

And it turned into a back and forth, tension-filled conversation, where I was asking, “well, what do you expect me to do?” Then she challenged me by saying, “if we're not careful, we'll have our staff living in the same conditions that our young people are, and they'll end up needing our services, too” – and that hit me in the gut. 

How did you address staff concerns? 

We enlisted the support of our board to convene a committee to do a compensation philosophy evaluation with our team. It covered a bunch of different things like, how do we value lived experience versus college degrees? How do we value time served with the organization? Do we do merit-based rate increases or cost of living increases or a combination of both? And one of the consistent throughlines was the need for a living wage. 

I went to talk to a couple of our team members to get a better understanding of what their lived experience was, and they began to share some of the challenges they have financially. I asked one of our staffers if she ever thought about buying a home for her daughter, and she laughed at me because that simply wasn't plausible. Another staffer was strapped with college loans and having a hard time getting by, and then I heard from other staff who were working as bartenders part-time and another one doing Uber Eats.

And this whole time, I'm thinking, we're doing better than the market, without actually interrogating what that meant. I went back and made a decision – we need to do something about this. Then I realized the only person getting in the way of that decision was really me. 

What was the process for the committee? 

The committee interviewed the staff and did it with Google Jamboard. That way, folks could contribute anonymously or they could say it out loud, and there wasn't a fear of being called out for their perspective.

I think I’m a pretty approachable guy, and I thought I was creating space for people to give feedback. When the staff was a handful of people, they’d tell me whatever they wanted to tell me. But now that we’re 30, that doesn't happen, but I didn't really recognize that it wasn't happening – I wasn't hearing all the pain points.

As leaders in these organizations, we have to come to grips with the fact that people aren't going to tell us the truth. They're not going to lie to us, but they're not necessarily going to be vulnerable and transparent about some of the things that are impacting them the most. 

We have to create ways for their voices to be heard authentically, without exposing themselves, so they feel like they're safe to bring their complete truth to the place. And I think convening this committee from our board and leveraging technology like Jamboards allowed folks to both do it anonymously and put their name on it if they chose. 

It created a groundswell within our organization that told me something needed to be done. Ultimately, the survey in this process created the basis we needed to do it right and do it well.

Board diversity is important for Choose 180, so how much of an impact did that have on making a decision like this?

It's not as difficult for people to travel to a place that they've been to before. But if you have a board that's comprised of folks who have never had to struggle, and to struggle while being Black or brown in our country. It's a little bit harder for them to understand that the bootstraps don't exist and that there's no way to pull yourself up out of poverty when the wealth gap is what it is. 

In our country, white families hold $1 to the nickel that black families hold in wealth. If you’re born into a white body, and that's the experience you've known, you’ll never actually understand the wealth disparity because it's never had to touch you in that way. 

What boards will typically say is okay, well, can you pull the numbers for me? How do we compare to other people? If you make this a data-driven decision alone, you're going to get it wrong every time, because the data and the market rate are all set inappropriately for the majority of these types of roles. 

The best advice I can give people is to first humanize the experience. Walk through what the experience is like for people who are serving alongside you and what it costs to be able to survive in the community you're serving, living and desire to thrive in. 

When you have people on your board that are reflective of those who have had to be on that journey, it's much less of “how do I make an analytical decision and make my analytics line up?” It’s “this is the human thing to do.” 

I get it. I've seen it. If I haven't been there myself, my family has, and I can connect to it in a real and intentional way. That's why it's really important that your boards are diversified, not just along ethnic lines, but also with lived experience.

The other side of your big decision is the business aspect. How’d you make it work?

Well, generally in life I subscribe to the Field of Dreams model. If you build it, they will come. There was no playing catch with Shoeless Joe Jackson or having Kevin Costner show up in a cornfield, but what did happen was when we made the decision and shared it, people began to support it because they believed it was the right thing to do. 

All I did was say something that we've all been thinking. Once I said it out loud, it reverberated in a way that didn't just resonate with people who were on the nonprofit side of things, it resonated with the people who had historically funded the nonprofit side of things. 

If you take the step of faith and look at the numbers, it's often not as dramatic as what you think it’ll be. Somebody asked me when we first did it, what happens if you can't make the bills, and I told them, it would be better to stop doing elements of our programming and make sure our team is able to have a living wage, than it would be to serve more people and cause harm to those who are doing the service. Because ultimately, we don't win if both sides of the equation don't balance out.

Has the salary change made an impact?

Absolutely. Some of the really cool things is having young people see the work (non-profit) as viable and you don't have to live in the same situation that I'm trying to get out of right now. And it's great for our team to be able to prop that up as a future. 

I had one of our team members say, “Man, this is the first time I felt like I'm in a career.”Other staff talked about cementing livelihoods for their families by looking at buying homes, which were never plausible, and those are really cool things. 

When we can do that and be close to the community, then the young people see that and the families that are connected to it see that, and there's this uplift that begins to happen that's much broader and much bigger than our cause alone, and that's been special.

We have employee incentives where you get $250 if you refer somebody, and that was not working before, but now folks are all over it because they know not only can they testify to the quality of the work, but also the fact that you're gonna get taken care of here.

You save a lot of money by not having vacant positions, where you're wasting time and resources by having people doing multiple jobs or jobs simply not being done. Your efficiency quotient rises dramatically when you're paying people a living wage.

As organizations combat the Great Resignation or make big changes in a time of uncertainty, what are some of the questions they should be asking?

You should start by asking questions about what your values are as an organization. What are they and how are you living them internally and externally? When the economy is strong and spending resources is easier, values are so much simpler to lean into. But when it's difficult, that's when those values need to stand in a way that we begin to see the transformative change within our causes and companies. 

Then, I would begin to interrogate our why. If you read this, and you're like, “I don't think we can do that,” I’d interrogate that. Get to the root cause of what your conviction is that leads you to believe that it's not possible. And if you arrive at that place, and you're humanizing the people you're serving next to and still feel like it's something you can't do, then I'd ask, do we need to still exist as a company or entity? Because if your organization exists, and you're causing harm to those who are accountable for delivering on what it is you provide, then to what benefit ultimately does this come? 

Another one is how soon is too soon to do this? The answer is right now. There are lots of questions that people are asking, like, how do I prove it to my board? How do I make a case statement for this? How do I justify it? And so many of those questions begin with how do I prove it numerically? And ultimately, we all end at the same place: It's the right human decision to make.

Finally, if this decision comes from the top down, you're going to miss and get it wrong every time. The people who are closest to the point of impact need to be leading these processes. Listen to them, and follow their lead. 

As executives, whether it's Chief Executive Officer or Executive Director, the most courageous thing we can do is follow the people closest to the pain point, because we’ve been asking them to follow us for a really long time.

Jose Triana
Post by Jose Triana
June 16, 2022
Jose Triana is a writer and creative focused on helping purpose-driven organizations learn and find value online. When he isn't working on content, you can catch him going for a run or resting with a good book.