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Compensation Equity Across Countries at Soccer Without Borders

As part of our commitment to equity, SWB undertook a USA-international compensation equity project in 2020. After years of benchmarking to local economies, SWB examined internal equity between similar positions at USA and international locations, and re-calibrated compensation based on the findings. Co-Founder and Executive Director Mary Connor offered insight into this landmark project. What was the motivation behind the international compensation equity project?

SWB has grown significantly in terms of number of staff and overall resources, especially in the last five years, moving from 12 staff, to 24, and now over 40 full time, 30 part time, and over 100 contractors around the world. We believe in local autonomy and adaptation, so originally SWB left compensation largely up to the local leaders to determine, based on their context and available resources, with ranges set by the Board as guardrails. This meant that compensation across locations could vary drastically, with two SWB staff members having largely the same role at different locations and making different amounts with different criteria.

As we began to unify and collaborate more as a staff, sharing resources and lessons, and even having some staff members relocate between SWB programs, setting compensation purely based on local comparisons exposed clear inequities. We knew that we needed to examine pay equity across positions and locations, but as a lean organization without any full-time Human Resource staff members at the time, it was challenging to get started. We decided to begin with our most common positions and where comparison information was most readily available, meaning that we started with Program Directors and Coordinators in our USA programs. We made a commitment to continue working to improve our pay equity, and to create a means of comparing USA to Nicaragua to Uganda fairly.

The latter had been on our minds for years, but it was hard to find good information. Few organizations disclose, or even talk about, how they approach pay equity when working in areas experiencing extreme poverty, or how to fairly compensate local staff in comparison to US-based staff or Americans working abroad. What we learned anecdotally is that American staff working abroad often make significantly higher pay than their local counterparts. A “typical” wage in an area of extreme poverty could be based on exploited labor, a lack of bargaining power, the influence of the informal economy, and/or devalued supply chains. I don’t claim to understand the economics of it all, but what we do know is that SWB does not want to reflect the inequitable world we live in, we want to create something better, that values everyone’s contributions fairly.

Who were some of the key players in the process?

The process was a team effort and collaboration between organizational leadership and program leadership in Nicaragua and Uganda, with tremendous support and encouragement from the Finance Committee of the Board of Directors, particularly Treasurer Charlie Bustin.

How did the international compensation equity project first come about?

In the Spring of 2020 when the pandemic first shut everything down, the US Government implemented a stimulus payment of $600 for everyone making under a certain salary threshold. This meant that our entire USA staff received a stimulus check, but our colleagues and peers in Nicaragua and Uganda did not. Inequity during the pandemic lockdown was everywhere. We saw it in how funds were getting distributed, who had access to healthcare, internet, schooling, and jobs. It felt like every gap that we had been working to close was only getting wider. To see this unfold within our own SWB family felt wrong.

I suppose the momentum started there. After the stimulus was announced, I spoke with Charlie Bustin about initiating proportionate stimulus payments for our SWB Nicaragua and Uganda staff members. Even though SWB hadn’t provided the USA stimulus directly, it was our way of addressing the inequity playing out in the world: that where you live or where you were born could determine your access to life-sustaining resources. Charlie not only took this immediately to the Finance Committee and got the payments approved, but the Board as a whole took it one step further, contributing over $20,000 in matching funds to Covid-response donations from our community of supporters.

Can you explain how the process worked internally and how long it took?

In a growing non-profit, there are always a dozen or more things on your priority list that should have been done yesterday, all of which deserve attention. That first stimulus conversation really catapulted compensation equity back to the top of the list. The conversation became about not just responding with resources when things are dire, but proactively examining whether our staff in different countries serving in the same role have comparable standards of living and quality of life. If the contexts in which they are living mean drastically different surrounding supports from the government and community, should SWB fill that gap? Will our resources allow for that? These are just some of the nuances of equitable pay that needed to be further researched and discussed.

Whereas previously we had thought that comparing the USA to Nicaragua and Uganda was comparing apples to oranges, we no longer accepted this inequity on its face. We had previously benchmarked Nicaragua and Uganda salaries against local educator wages, but found those wages still led to drastic inequity between similar positions. We started the conversations in the Fall of 2020 after the initial chaoticness of the adaptations to virtual programming, and by the end of 2020 we worked with our leadership in Nicaragua and Uganda to create a conversion calculation that allowed us to compare salaries internally between our three operating countries. It was not as simple as using the “cost of living” calculators, which aggregate numbers from massive companies and across entire cities. We needed to think about our hyper-local context and work with our staff members on the ground to determine a fair conversion. In early 2021 we rolled out the new salary proposal and were able to get it approved by the Board of Directors so it could be implemented right away.

Why did you feel it was important to address compensation equity? What has been the reaction from the SWB community/staff?

Compensation equity gets to the heart of how people feel valued. We see everyday that direct service providers are the glue that hold communities together. Program leaders and coach-mentors are essential workers when it comes to a young person’s mental, physical, academic, and emotional health. While we cannot control larger economic forces in the world, we can control how fairly and equitably we distribute the resources we do have. This commitment to equity, I believe, is what shows our staff that they are valued and that their work is seen. It also strengthens our sense of community and team; as the organization has grown its resources, we have made sure that growth benefits everyone. We work as a team to create impact and should share in our collective growth.

How do you view things like compensation equity and participatory budgeting fitting into the definition of Equity as an SWB core value?

How an organization invests its resources speaks to what it values. We must keep working to distribute resources between people fairly and include the voices of those most affected when decisions about resources are made. This is why participatory budgeting and compensation equity are crucial parts of our overall commitment to equity. We will continue to evolve our practices, and challenge others in the position of distributing resources to think critically about who and what is valued in every budget.


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