28 October 2021

Leading with Values on Compensation

Accountability Counsel exists to hold international investors accountable for their impact on people and planet. Every day, we demand from those in power transparency, meaningful consultation, decision-making processes that prioritize the wellbeing of those who are most impacted, equitable compensation and benefit-sharing, and effective channels for feedback.

Our legitimacy in this work requires us to also hold ourselves accountable to these standards. Credibility is critical to our impact, as is attracting and retaining a talented and engaged team: a team that feels valued, heard, and respected by those with power within their own organization.

This is why, after years of supporting communities to negotiate with international institutions and their own governments for fair compensation, I found myself—in a new role at Accountability Counsel—reflecting on the meaning of fair compensation for our own team. After months of research and discussion, on September 1, 2021, we launched a new Compensation Equity & Transparency Framework with a goal of ensuring that compensation at Accountability Counsel is competitive, transparent, progressive, and equitable: across a global team. I’m excited to now share that work with our community at large.

A new compensation framework

The search for an equitable compensation framework offers many possibilities, with bold organizations (both for profit and not) leading a shift towards greater wage transparency and parity. I say a “shift” because these efforts are not easy or absolute. For example, we know that global inequities depress the value of labor—disproportionately so in the Global South (the same inequities that contribute to inadequate compensation of those harmed by internationally-financed projects)—and we do not want to perpetuate and exploit those same inequities that we are fighting against in our substantive work. However, universal compensation without regard to the local context and cost of living could undermine or distort the local market and unfairly compete with local civil society (including our own partners) for talent.

Navigating many such considerations and choice points, we landed on this framework. Its core features are:

  • Compensation bands to reduce the scope of discretion and mitigate the risk of bias. Research has shown that women and racial minorities are subject to implicit and explicit negotiation biases, contributing to well-documented gender and race pay gaps. Creating firm, narrow, and transparent compensation bands across the organization will minimize the role of discretion (and risk of bias) in compensation decisions, and force us to regularly examine whether team members are paid equitably given their experience, performance, skills, and responsibilities, individually and relative to others. Alongside those compensation bands are an explicit description of the qualities and skills that we expect from each band, to provide a clear and common vocabulary—across the organization—for professional growth and associated compensation milestones.
  • Greater transparency into compensation and promotion decisions. Alongside this structural shift, we are prioritizing transparency as a trust-building and an accountability measure. All compensation bands will be transparent internally, as well as who occupies those bands. Within a band, each person will know their position relative to others in the same band (in an anonymized form). The pathways for compensation progression, whether within an existing role or through internal promotion, are clearly laid out and any competitive promotion opportunities will be openly announced with expressions of interest invited. Externally, we will be incorporating compensation ranges in job descriptions wherever possible and have published our FY22 bands in full here. Taken together, these measures will enable and empower our team members (and prospective team members) to understand and to check our assessments of fair compensation (individually and across the organization) and to enter into any discussion about compensation on a more equitable footing. Knowledge is power. And transparency enables accountability.
  • Intentionally reducing our global pay gap. Finally, we are taking concrete steps to minimize our global pay gap. We are consciously moving away from a strictly localized approach to compensation. We believe that we are competing for our team’s talents in a global rather than a local market, and that compensation should reflect that. Accordingly, we have a single set of compensation bands across the organization. If someone is resident outside of California or the wider D.C. area (the locations where we sourced our compensation data in order to establish the compensation bands), we will apply a cost of living adjustment. However, in order to intentionally mitigate our global pay gap, we have set a floor for that adjustment. Globally, no one will be paid less than 70% of the compensation that they would have earned if they lived in San Francisco or D.C.

We are proud of this framework, but also recognize that it’s not perfect. A topic as multifaceted and personal as compensation will always involve trade offs and require course corrections over time. One of the cultural shifts that we have made as an organization is to be more internally experimental, radical, and willing to interrogate and challenge the status quo. This requires an openness to try new things, perhaps to make some mistakes too, to learn, and to make changes as needed. As a legal organization, the tendency towards risk aversion is real: being bold requires intentional effort.

Where do we go from here?

There’s no time to rest. In the next financial year, we are planning further work on:

  • Equity-informed benefits: The compensation review that led to the new framework focused on monetary compensation, but of course a holistic compensation package is more than just that. We plan to review our benefits (health, retirement, leave, etc.), asking questions such as: do our benefits provide adequate coverage for diverse family structures?
  • The data sources informing our compensation bands: To date, we have utilized a number of non-profit compensation surveys (from California and the D.C. area), as well as data from peer organizations. However, there’s room to diversify these data sources, geographically and potentially beyond non-profit organizations. Non-profit work is frequently undervalued and undercompensated. We are striving for a future in which our team is not required to make major financial sacrifices—or have substantial financial privilege—in order to do this work.
  • Bigger picture, our Diversity, Equity, Accessibility, and Inclusion (DEAI) values and commitment to justice must be reflected in all of our policies, practices, and systems. Justice-oriented organizations must ‘do the work’ internally as well as externally to avoid perpetuating systems of oppression. We are currently working with Evolv Culture who is undertaking an organizational DEAI assessment and will be making recommendations for additional actions we can take to be a more diverse, equitable, accessible, and inclusive organization. These recommendations may inspire further changes to our compensation, promotion, and professional development practices, which will be incorporated into future iterations of this framework.

We also want to be a partner to other organizations who are thinking about similar issues. We are making this work public to spark and support conversations with peers and funders about the meaning of fair and equitable compensation in our field. Please never hesitate to reach out to me (lani@accountabilitycounsel.org) if you’d like to discuss this further.