What to Pay Communications Contractors, Part I: Maslow’s Hierarchy

The first in a series, with a focus on the value of communications work in the non-profit sector.

Over the years, I’ve done a lot of communications work for small non-profits. I love working in the non-profit sector and I’m happy to accept lower rates than I can expect elsewhere because I like feeling that I’ve contributed to leaving the world a little better than I found it.

On the other hand, I—and probably most people who work for non-profits—often sell myself short. That’s easy to do. People doing non-profit work are often uneasy about asking for more because, after all, those served by the organization’s mandate need the money they would charge (or the services it buys). And the people holding the purse strings usually have to make too few dollars go farther than they should have to. So, understandably, they’re always trying to get as much as they can for every dollar they spend.

I’ve struggled a lot with the dichotomy between what I need to earn and my difficulty in asking for it. Some communications professionals deal with this dilemma by doing corporate work to pay their bills and volunteering when they can. Others see non-profits as a place to get experience when getting started on a career or work for non-profits while raising families because of the flexibility most offer, and see even a drastic compromise in pay as a tradeoff.

My approach has been to estimate based on the fastest possible time I can do a job and the lowest rate I can manage and then work so hard doing the best job I can for them that I put in 50–100% more hours than I’ll be paid for.

Why It’s Wrong to Sell Myself Short to Non-Profits

It’s not a sustainable approach, but I always rationalize it—“I’m learning new skills on this job,” or “I’m getting a good recent sample.” I have a hard time saying to a non-profit employer, “This is what needs to be done if this piece of work is to be done properly and it needs to be done properly for you to get good return on your investment; these are all the stages of a project of this nature, what’s involved in doing them, and why it takes this much time; and therefore this higher amount [than you would like me to charge] is the really the lowest I can manage.”

Yet what I haven’t been able to do is the right approach and what I have been doing is the wrong thinking. At least that’s what countless people have said to me over the years. But I could never make it fit until a recent workshop I attended where the facilitator applied Maslow’s hierarchy to making a living.

In case you didn’t take first-year psychology, Maslow’s hierarchy looks at human development as something that occurs in stages. Progression from one stage of development into the next depends upon fulfillment of all the needs at the lower stage.

At the lowest level are basic needs for food, water, shelter, and so on. Only when those basic needs are met can we move on to fulfill security needs, like employment, family, health, and property. And only when we are physically secure can we move on to fulfilling needs for love and belonging, self-esteem and respect for others, and, at the highest level, morality, creativity, and lack of prejudice.

Maslow and Non-Profit Communications

Since its creation in 1943 by psychologist Abraham Maslow, Maslow’s hierarchy has been adapted to fit a wide variety of situations, such as spiritual development and development of professional relationships (or, for fun, internet needs, or the ever-popular robot needs). But I’ve never considered it in light of my own need to expect a certain hourly rate.

Having looked at it that way now, though, it seems so obvious. Any one of us must earn enough of a living to meet our most basic needs for food and shelter in order to feel secure in life. Only when we feel secure can we develop solid relationships with family and friends—relationships that are the backbone of community, and community that makes it possible to help others.

Only when we have good relationships can we practice self-respect and respect of others, which is essential to working toward the goals that non-profits strive to fulfill. And only when we have inner and outer respect can we put our own needs in perspective and creatively address the social, environmental, political, educational, and other challenges that are the raison d’être of the non-profit sector, confident in the knowledge that individual well-being hangs together with collective well-being.

In other words, expecting to be paid (or to pay) a realistic hourly rate is not taking away from a non-profit’s ability to serve its constituents. Rather, a realistic hourly rate—one that honours skilled work and meets workers’ needs—is vital to the work non-profits do.

Of course, it’s not that simple. Nothing ever is. There is only so much money to go around. When cutbacks come around, non-profit administrators have to look hard at what is vital to the organization’s well-being and what is not. And while communications work is great, it’s not essential. It’s really a bit of a frill.

Or is it?

More on that in my next post, “What to Pay, Part II: The Upside of the Downturn.”

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