Real talk: A lot of Memphians are one or two paychecks away from falling into poverty or homelessness — if they’re not already there, said Jeralyn Richardson, communications director for Seeding Success.

Having good data Memphis-area nonprofits can share as they work toward paying workers a living wage, or supporting efforts by others to do so is one reason Seeding Success was keen to complete the annual MLK50: Justice Through Journalism Living Wage Survey.

“We believe in a living wage,” said Richardson of the cradle-to-career nonprofit that partners with organizations to give school-age children a successful educational liftoff. “We believe in everybody having a fair chance at economic mobility. It takes a commitment from not just the person but also the systems that support them. Everything you do is tied to your economic status.”

This year, MLK50: Justice Through Journalism trained attention on Memphis-area nonprofits for our annual Living Wage Survey. In 2018, we focused on Memphis-area corporations, many which declined to participate or gave vague responses. In our 2019 survey, 33 responding nonprofits were eager to share information on how much they pay employees and overwhelmingly indicated they would support a gradual increase to $15 an hour over five years.

A few declined to answer, but among those that did, no one said no to the notion of moving to $15 an hour.

Several nonprofit leaders also shared hopes, dreams and challenges for their mission-driven work. Their missions often require stretching time and effort to serve constituencies on tight budgets.

Following are some insights they shared after completing the survey.

Cherisse Scott, CEO of SisterReach

“We are broken and overworked, and underpaid and underappreciated,” said Scott about SisterReach, a reproductive rights organization that empowers girls and women of color to live healthy, productive lives. Cherisse Scott, SisterReach CEO

Cherisse Scott, CEO, SisterReach

Last week, she worked double time to process payroll for seven permanent staffers, mostly mothers, before she headed out of town to serve as a thought-leader on reproductive justice. Scott describes her job as being a CEO one moment, a development director the next, then a human resources specialist in a seamless turn.

“I just wish there were three of me,” Scott said. “And because I’m still constantly evolving and revolving people into our work, having to onboard people, it takes a lot of capacity. I’m still working four jobs myself and not even at the same rate of pay as my colleagues [at other organizations].”

In constant fundraising mode, Scott described how vulnerable nonprofits are when their framework clashes against traditional Southern mores. SisterReach follows a feminist reproductive justice mode that works to help women, girls and LBGT residents own their bodies and exercise their agency.

“There’s the constant fear. Just because it’s a nonprofit and we’re black folks who do it doesn’t mean we don’t hold the same fears as black folks in Corporate America,” Scott said. “If we make the wrong step, if we make a misstep, it’s absolutely taken differently. We are yet under-resourced.”

Mauricio Calvo, Executive Director, Latino Memphis

Mauricio Calvo, Latino Memphis

Raising money for all salaries is the big challenge, Calvo wrote in his survey response. Whether part-time or full-time, all hourly employees get paid a starting wage of $15 an hour “regardless of work experience or education.”

Latino Memphis reports 14 permanent employees, including full-time and part-time workers.

They don’t use temporary workers, but the organization has outsourced some work, according to the survey response: “We believe in work ethic and that if you provide all employees a livable wage, then they will be able to strive in the work environment.”

Kevin Dean, CEO of Momentum Nonprofit Partners

While our survey shows that many Memphis-area nonprofits support lifting the wage floor, Dean said smaller organizations have more of struggle with that than larger ones.

Kevin Dean, CEO, Momentum Nonprofit Partners

“My worry is smaller organizations are not paying what needs to be provided: living wage, benefits, things like that,” Dean said. “That really is a board issue. The boards should be making sure people are being paid adequately and put in a position where they don’t have to lose sleep at night because of their own financial issues.”

Dean said the living wage issue is just part of the equation: “There’s also the medical and dental and paid time off and professional development funds that also make or break a nonprofit. I think one of the things that happen when funding shifts in a nonprofit is benefits to staff are taken away. I see that happen all the time. People are going from full-time to part-time. That’s always difficult for people to know what their finances are.

His organization is concerned about day-to-day equity. When nonprofits submit a job to be posted by Momentum, for example, Momentum staff ask them to include “a set salary so it’s non-negotiable.” Unpublished salaries typically punish women and people of color, who may be lowballed in the hiring process. The organization also encourages nonprofits to “be explicit that women and people of color are encouraged to apply.”

Aimee Lewis, Vice President of External Affairs, Planned Parenthood of Tennessee and North Mississippi

Most staffers, 74 percent, earn $15 an hour and more. And the remaining 26 percent of Planned Parenthood Memphis employees are paid $14 an hour, according to Lewis and Planned Parenthood’s survey response.

Aimee Lewis, Planned Parenthood of Tennessee and North Mississippi

This includes front-line workers, like front-desk clerks or call center staff, trained to be skilled at serving customers who may be anxious about their healthcare needs, whether it’s getting birth control or checking for a sexually transmitted infection. In fact, it takes careful screening of these workers to find those who have the required sensitivity.

Not everybody makes the cut, but when they do, Lewis said, “our staff goes through a lot of training about just being that welcoming, compassionate and nonjudgmental person.”

Jeralyn Richardson, communications director of Seeding Success

Seeding Success partners with other organizations to give children in kindergarten through eight-grade a successful educational launch. That help is expected to pay off in adulthood because those first years are crucial to development. A staff of 18 are paid above the $15-an-hour minimum, but they are concerned about other people who are not paid a living wage.

“One of the things we’re committed to is using data to inform decision-making,” Richardson said. “We feel like this survey can help inform the decision-making process of our state and city, being a part of the conversation around a living wage and increasing the minimum wage.”

Jeralyn Richardson, Seeding Success

“There are a lot of things people face, regardless of whether you are an hourly worker or a salaried worker,” Richardson said. And many of them, herself included, are “one or two paychecks away from being homeless or being in poverty. ”

Richardson said she is also familiar with a movement called ALICE, a United Way acronym that stands for Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed. It describes “those who are working but not able to get all the things they need,” Richardson explained. “The rhetoric is people aren’t working or don’t want to work, [but] these are people who are employed and still need additional income and support.”

This story is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit reporting project on economic justice in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today. MLK50 is also supported by the Surdna Foundation and Community Change.