Dulce Kersting-Lark, Executive Director of Latah County Historical Society (Moscow, ID)
Working for a museum became my dream sometime during my high school years when I realized that my passion for history did not encompass a love of classroom teaching. In college I pursued internships (both unpaid and poorly paid) in nearby museums and archives. I went on to study Public History in graduate school, where I was grateful to take a teaching assistantship that paid well under minimum wage for the hours I worked, but allowed me to forego additional student loans.
About the time I was finishing my MA, a museum curator position opened in a neighboring town. When the call came in that the hiring committee would like to offer me the job, I was practically in tears. After focusing my sights so singularly on a job in the industry, it felt like a small miracle that I was actually going to be gainfully employed. The salary was enough to get by on, I told myself; I was used to living frugally anyway as a graduate student whose apartment complex was affectionately referred to as “The Gulag” by more than a few people.
In fact, as first jobs go, I know that I was lucky. The position was partially funded by the county, and as an employee of the government I had access to healthcare, paid sick leave, and retirement plans. I was also promoted to director within a year, and that gave me a small pay bump that allowed me to do wild things like buy organic vegetables or attend a concert out of town. I was happy to be working in a job that I loved, for people who were compassionate, so I didn’t worry too much about the fact that my personal savings account hovered around $1,500.
Having been in the nonprofit sector for nearly five years now, I have identified a mindset that I find both pervasive and destructive. Society treats a career in nonprofit work as a hobby job, and we (meaning me and you and the sector as a whole) allow that to happen! By accepting poorly paid jobs with a gracious smile on our face, we perpetuate the perception that these jobs are just for second income earners, stay-at-home spouses looking for a feel-good distraction, or martyrs who happily lap up ramen noodles. The fact that most of us are women only serves to reinforce these perceptions. Museum workers are particularly likely to come face to face with the idea that their job is fun, and therefore a luxury in and of itself that should somehow make up for salaries that do not match our years of training and experience.
I remember vividly the day I decided I needed to take control of my economic future. During the last year of the Obama Administration there were new overtime laws set to go into effect, and in my local nonprofit support group (nearly all women) we were discussing how these changes would play out for us folks who were not being paid enough to remain overtime exempt. The ED of the community center said she had gone to her board and told them that they had two choice: a) increase her salary by several thousand dollars to put her back into the exempt category or b) pay her hourly, knowing that she frequently worked 50 or 60 hours each week. She also pointed out that if she had to move away tomorrow, they could not fill her position with the salary she was being paid. In essence, she made the case that it was an investment in the organization’s future to increase the salary line. Her Board chose to raise her base salary.
Armed with the confidence of knowing that my friend and nonprofit peer could take on such a scary topic as daring to ask for more money, I began the nearly 8 month process of securing my own raise. As a county employee that involved meeting with a compensation committee to update my job description, which had not been done since 2006. My responsibilities were assigned points and my job was ranked against others in county government to determine what a salary commensurate with my duties should be. A recommendation was then put forth to the Board of County Commissioners, who took it under advisement as they developed their budget for the next fiscal year. I met with the Commissioners several times to explain why I felt the salary increase was justified, which truthfully was nerve-wracking but also empowering. I frequently had to ask clarifying questions about the process, which made me feel vulnerable and under-informed. It was, however, worth it in the end. In FY2018 I received a pay increase of nearly 40 percent. Along the way, I was also advocating for my museum colleague and fellow county employee’s salary to be recalculated. His pay was augmented considerably as well.
I know every institution is unique, and my experience as a government employee is not always relatable. I do think that there are a few universal truths a work in this example though. The first is that we are our own best advocates. Little is given without an ask. We know this to be true in fundraising, so why are we reluctant to apply it to our own lives? A second takeaway is that our love for our job, museum, community, or industry is too often allowed to substitute for the pay or benefits that we deserve. But how can we take care our organizations well if we can’t afford to take care of ourselves and our families? Lastly, this is a problem for folks throughout the nonprofit sector. It is going to take all of us, working together, to advance perceptions about the value of our work.
Dulce Kersting-Lark has been the Executive Director of the Latah County Historical Society in Moscow, Idaho since 2014. She is passionate about the value of museums in communities of all sizes and is on the Board of Directors for the Idaho Association of Museums. When not scheming with her nonprofit friends about how to make the world a better place, she likes hanging out with her husband and dog in the mountains of beautiful northern Idaho.