May 14, 2024

Nature Centers Work Toward Equitable Compensation

Asa Duffee, ANCA Director of Marketing & Communications


At a virtual ANCA CONNECTS program in January, facilitator Olivia Griset posed a question to participants: what was your first job in environmental education?

To dig deeper into that question, Griset — who is the Executive Director of the Maine Environmental Education Association (MEEA) —  also asked, what resources did you need to get that job? What did it pay? And what did you have to do to grow your career?

These questions were part of a discussion about equitable compensation in environmental education, specifically based on a resource from the Southeastern Environmental Education Alliance (SEEA), eeGuidance for Equitable Pay and Hiring. Referencing an SEEA survey from 2021, the eeGuidance shares that “entry-level pay in environmental education is 15-25% lower than in comparable fields such as forestry, tourism, and formal education.”

This low pay often does not stop at entry-level positions. The nonprofit sector as a whole faces low salaries and wages, and this can also apply to governmental mission-based organizations as well. As such, staff at all levels of nature centers, outdoor schools, and environmental learning centers can receive lower pay than comparable professions.

This lower pay has profound implications for our field. 

Of course, low salaries and wages significantly impact working professionals’ lives in many ways, and can contribute to financial stress and challenges. But low-paying jobs can also mean that many individuals can’t take that job in the first place, due to a lack of resources or support. A 2021 study of informal science educators, The Privilege of Low Pay, found that “Alarmingly, 70% of respondents said they would be unable to sustain their career in informal education without additional support. Written responses referenced living ‘paycheck to paycheck’ and relying on partners, roommates, parents, and generational wealth.”

Because of this reliance on additional support, such low compensation standards can contribute to existing inequities in our profession; this actively excludes individuals who do not have privileges like family wealth or partners’ income. As blogger Vu Le has pointed out, too, professionals with financial privileges can unintentionally overlook inequities in the workplace.

Many organizations in the nature center profession are actively working to address low wages and raise compensation to equitable levels.

What is equitable compensation, and what does it support?

Equitable compensation will naturally vary based on factors like geographic location. Some professionals cite a living wage as a goal, but others point out that the living wage is commonly defined as meeting essential needs only. MIT’s Living Wage Calculator, a popular tool to identify the living wage, estimates “the local wage rate that a full-time worker requires to cover the costs of their family’s basic needs.” This does not include saving money for emergencies, retirement, or large purchases such as home down payments, nor does it include paying student loans. The calculations also do not reflect any disposable income for leisure or entertainment; even dining at a restaurant once per year is not accounted for.

Some organizations instead aim for a thriving wage that would include these additional expenses and savings. While there is no standard definition of a thriving wage, Mala Nagarajan, a consultant who works on compensation equity, has proposed that the thriving wage is double the living wage.

While equitable compensation supports professionals’ livelihoods and careers in the profession, it can also contribute to an organization’s success by retaining staff. Replacing staff requires a significant investment of time and resources through hiring, training, and lost productivity during onboarding; some experts estimate it can cost up to two times an employee's salary to replace their position. Ultimately, if an organization can retain talented and skilled staff, it will more effectively achieve its mission.

“If you're hiring less, training less, and you have … people who just love working in your organization, your work is going to be amazing,” says Griset.

Naturally, people switch employers for many reasons, some of which are unavoidable. But equitable compensation reduces the likelihood that an employee will leave solely for a higher-paying job.

Increasing pay can also result in receiving a broader application pool for open positions. Peter Bode, President & CEO of the Nature Center at Shaker Lakes in Cleveland, Ohio, notes that for a part-time position, the organization used to receive only a handful of applications. Once they posted the same position with an increased wage, they received over 50 applications.

A wetlands view at the Nature Center at Shaker Lakes in Cleveland, Ohio.

Using internal and external resources to increase wages

Raising wages across an organization is likely not a simple task. For some organizations, this can be a multi-year process that involves reviewing existing positions and job descriptions, seeking out compensation data for comparable organizations, and making a financial plan for increased costs.

Some ANCA members have achieved this using internal processes and resources. The Nature Center at Shaker Lakes recently raised salaries and wages across the organization, and Bode says that he was able to work with board members to calculate and enact the changes.

“I have an extremely strong board,” Bode says, “so we were able to lean on a couple [board members] for the expertise that they had.”

Other ANCA members have increased compensation levels with the help of external consultants. This can be particularly valuable when significant changes are being made, or when the organization is large.

ANCA Board President Kristin Smith was involved in an organizational wage analysis and increase in her former position as Recreation Manager at the Tualatin Hills Parks & Recreation District in Beaverton, Ore. Smith says that external consultants were useful to work with, especially because this analysis impacted hundreds of staff.

“The sheer volume of work is a lot for somebody to take on solely internally within an organization,” Smith says, and adds that the consultants were able to offer an independent perspective using best practices from the field.

Identifying what’s equitable for your organization and area

One challenge of setting compensation levels is the wide range of cost of living in different geographic areas. To best set equitable pay levels, it’s important to research wages and cost of living in your specific area.

“We did a baseline assessment of the industry, but mainly the local industry more than national,” Bode says. “So we looked at what comparable organizations and nonprofits of similar size were paying people, and we tried to be on the high end of that.”

The scope of comparable organizations may go beyond looking at solely environmental organizations. For the Nature Center at Shaker Lakes, Bode reviewed compensation data from other arts and culture organizations to have a better understanding of pay within the region.

SEEA’s eeGuidance also encourages benchmarking compensation outside the environmental education field, because the field as a whole has low pay rates: “Benchmarking pay against like organizations in a sector that is known for underpaying people is an unspoken agreement that the practice is acceptable.”

ANCA Organization Member Stokes Nature Center in Logan, Utah, has worked to raise compensation in recent years, and Executive Director Kendra Penry notes that this geographical consideration in pay is often very specific. When setting wages at Stokes, Penry had to factor differences in cost of living from an hour away.

A view of Green Canyon in Logan, Utah, where Stokes Nature Center hosts programs.

Using compensation as part of new organizational models

At the Maine Environmental Education Alliance, their recent work on equitable compensation involved more than slight adjustments to salaries and wages. The compensation changes began with an interest in both shared leadership and equitable organization models more broadly.

“It became pretty clear early on that pay and compensation was one of the places that could really trip up shared leadership approaches,” says Griset. “Because if people don't have a good understanding of why they're being paid, what they're being paid and how that's determined, that can be a really big problem when folks move into shared leadership.”

As MEEA was exploring how it could operate as a more equitable organization, it also became apparent that compensation was an integral part of that journey. 

“We're going to take actions that actualize equity in ways that aren't just a statement,” Griset says. By implementing equitable compensation, MEEA was putting its values into action.

MEEA worked with Blue Swallow Consulting to develop a new compensation model — based on work by Vega Mala Consulting — that set a base pay rate for all employees, then added compensation for responsibilities and experience.

“It’s not rooted to titles,” says Griset. “It's rooted to roles and the work you actually do.”

This model results in a rubric where there are three levels of responsibility in an area of the organization, such as programs or management. If the employee holds more responsibility in that area, they will earn a predetermined amount more. These levels of additional compensation also apply to professional and lived experience that relates to the organization.

In addition to being designed for thriving wages, this structure also allows transparency for all employees, so that they fully understand why they earn the amount they do. In hiring new employees, it eliminates any subjective negotiation — instead, the new employee can review the rubric of responsibilities and discuss which level of responsibility they will have.

For Griset, this new pay structure allows MEEA to grow as an organization while operating with a shared leadership structure.

“There's a lot of different shared leadership models out there that you can experiment with, but I think this compensation structure allows us to try any of them,” she says. “Because while we're experimenting and iterating on those pieces, our compensation can stay stable and transparent and understood.”

Budgeting for increased pay

Of course, raising salaries and wages means that the organization needs to increase its income on some level, and this is likely not an easy feat — nor is there one method that will work for every organization.

At the Nature Center at Shaker Lakes, the organization’s recent funding was bolstered by the Employee Retention Credit, a tax credit for organizations that retained staff during the pandemic. This allowed Bode to increase salaries and wages as part of a three-year plan. Moving forward, the nature center will focus more fundraising efforts on growing general operating funds.

MEEA’s plans for increased compensation developed over a year and half, and during that time the organization was able to prepare accordingly. Griset says that growing the operating reserves was essential for transitioning to the new pay structure. Now that the new model has been implemented, she has increased fundraising efforts and is specifically being transparent about the model and MEEA’s commitment to equitable compensation.

“So far people are really being understanding of that and excited about it,” she says. Because of this transparency and commitment, some funders have even increased general operating support.

Penry of Stokes Nature Center also emphasizes the importance of understanding the actual costs of providing programs and services, both to communicate with funders and to set prices accordingly. This includes fully accounting for staff time, utilities, and other administrative costs.

“The first step was understanding the true cost of what we do, because if we don't know it, we can’t expect the community to know it,” Penry says. “Then setting an appropriate program fee that is not unattainable for people, but at the same time, adequately expresses the real value of our work.”

Penry is also investigating how the organization might grow its major donors to help support increased operating expenses. She says that the nature center is proud of its largely grassroots fundraising — but that as the organization grows, it’s looking to expand how it approaches fundraising as well.

Viewing the compensation package as a whole

Children play at the Nature Center at Shaker Lakes.Compensation packages are more than salaries and wages, and any competitive package will include benefits like health insurance, retirement plan contributions, and paid time off. In addition to these important benefits, organizations can also consider how they might add value to the package without adding significant costs.

Kitty Pochman, ANCA Board Member and Executive Director of the Linda Loring Nature Foundation (LLNF) in Nantucket, Mass., suggests that nature centers can offer flexible work hours and generous time-off policies as valuable benefits to staff. As an example specific to LLNF, staff can require medical care off the island, which could take over half the workday due to commuting by ferry. The organization doesn’t require staff to take this as personal time off.

Penry offers that nature centers can partner with local businesses to provide discounts to staff, especially for outdoor businesses. In mountainous northern Utah, an example might be giving staff discounts on ski lift tickets — though obviously that will look different in other landscapes.

Raising standards in the field

As SEEA’s findings indicate, our profession needs to raise standards for compensation. Doing so will welcome a broader range of professionals and will enable those professionals to have a sustainable career in our field.

Griset shares that while MEEA has made progress in paying more equitably, it’s an ongoing organizational journey, and they’re still learning. She also emphasizes that every organization has its own path, and what works to implement equitable pay at one organization may not work at another.

“You have to do the work of going through the process,” Griset says. While the process may not be easy, she encourages other organizations to prioritize equitable pay, no matter where they currently stand. “We just have to … start working on it and help each other out to do it.”

She adds that this is essential for our field to become more broadly equitable, and to demonstrate that our work matters.

“Until we are taking this on as a sector, our work will stay kind of on the sidelines too, because we're not being valued for our work,” Griset says.

ANCA Board President Smith agrees.

“All of us have a responsibility to raise the value of the field,” Smith says.

Additional Resources

Southeastern Environmental Education Alliance
eeGuidance for Equitable Pay and Hiring in Environmental Education
This document explores pay and benefits, position design, recruitment, and hiring processes, and provides standards for employers to implement.

Fund the People
Six Practices for Embedding Equity in Nonprofit Compensation – with Mala Nagarajan, Vega Mala Consulting
A podcast episode about how nonprofits can de-link privilege and marginalization from salaries, and reconstruct compensation in a way that is equitable.

Reimagining Compensation: It’s Time to Stop Building on Inequities of the Past (Part 2)
How a capacity-building nonprofit approached structural changes in compensation.

American Alliance of Museums
Museums and the Living Wage: How Filoli Developed a Bold Pay Equity Initiative
The CEO of Filoli, a historic site in Woodside, Calif., shares how the organization transitioned to pay equity.

The Center for Effective Global Action
A new approach to compensation
How and why the Center for Effective Global Action adopted a transparent pay equity model, and what’s required to sustain it.



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