Assessing the Gender Gap at Nonprofits in Global Development

March 05, 2018

Last year on International Women’s Day, we talked about labor and financial equality as a prerequisite for women’s empowerment. This year, we’re being a little more introspective. Many nonprofits working in global development advocate for women’s empowerment and gender equality (this one included). But do they follow through when it comes to their own staff and management? Tax reporting requirements in the US mean that we can at least partially answer that question as it relates to remuneration, and the preliminary answer is “not yet.”

To compile a database of organizations and employees in international development we started with three websites: the Inside Philanthropy list of global development funders, the 2016 Global Go To Think Tank Index Report list of “Top International Development Think Tanks” (p. 90), and the list of members at Interaction, an alliance organization of international development NGOs. We then randomized the order of the names in each of the three lists and searched in list order for the organization’s IRS Form 990.

We extracted data on the organization’s total revenue, the fiscal year of the 990, and the gender and pay of the listed employees who worked at least 30 hours a week (which excluded most board and trustee members). Not every organization was eligible for analysis: we excluded organizations with no available tax form and/or fewer than five salaried and full time (at least 30 hours) employees. For the think tanks list, we excluded non-US organizations which would not have 990s available. We continued down the list for each group until we had 10 organizations of each type to make up our sample to analyze. All but two of the Form 990s we examined were from 2015, the exceptions were from 2016.

The resulting database covers 110 NGO employees, 151 think tank employees, and 64 foundation employees (an average of 10.8 per institution). We report below what proportion of those key/high paid employees were women in each group, the average pay of key/high paid women expressed as a percentage of the average pay of key/high paid men, the percentage of organizations for which a woman is listed as the highest paid employee, the percentage of organizations where more or equal numbers of key/high paid women were listed as men and the percentage of organizations where the average pay of key/high paid women was the same or more as the average for men in the organization.

Some caveats regarding data and interpretation of results:

  • We are limited by the data that nonprofits self-report on their forms: in that regard, our database includes more than just the top five highest paid employees in think tanks and NGOs, it also includes other “key” employees that worked 30 hours a week or more.   For the foundation lists, it’s important to note that they are only required to list the top five highest paid employees which creates a smaller sample pool.

  • Our sample size is small: out of 202 foundations, 130 think tanks, and 182 NGOs we only look at 10 for each group. This means the margin of error of our estimates will be large, particularly on questions at the institutional level (on the question “what percentage of best paid employees are women,” for example, we can only be 90 percent confident that the mean of the full group of foundations listed by Inside Philanthropy is within about 25 percentage points of the mean we report from our sample).

  • The pool of organizations includes nonprofits that only work on development issues as one part of a much broader portfolio of activities. That’s particularly true of the think tanks and foundations.

The purpose of the exercise is not to shame specific nonprofits, but rather to (imperfectly) paint a sector-wide picture. To this end, we’ll break from standard CGD practice and not release the underlying dataset (however, please note: this information is all in the public domain). But for the sake of transparency, we also report CGD’s 2015 numbers on a separate line (it was not part of the random sample of think tanks).

In short, the data we’ve collected suggests that nonprofits involved in international development still have some way to go in terms of gender equality. Here are our key findings:

  • Less than a third of people in our (small) sample of key/high paid employees in US think tanks are women, although in our sample of foundations there was parity between the number of men and women.

  • Key/high paid women appear to be paid less than key/high-paid men in all three of our sample groups, and very few of the highest-paid employees in organizations connected to global development are women—a total of 5 out of 30 across the three groups.

  • Looking across organizations, it is impressive that 6 out of 10 of our foundations list more than or equal numbers of high-paid or key women as they do men and 4 out of 10 foundations pay more or the same on average to listed women as to men. But only 2 out of 10 think tanks and the same proportion of NGOs pay more or the same on average to listed women as to men.

It might be worth comparing these numbers to what we know about the nonprofit sector as a whole. Women make up 75 percent of the nonprofit workforce, but just 18 percent of the largest nonprofits’ CEOs are women and they earn up to 8 percent less than their male peers. Tweet this Our data tells a similar story. (The performance is at least better than that in Fortune 500 companies, of which only 4.2 percent of are run by women, and where 19 percent of senior management positions in those companies are held by women.)

  Percentage of Women amongst High Paid Employees Percentage of Women amongst Orgs' Single Highest Paid Employees Avg Women's Pay (as a % of Avg Men's Pay amongst High Paid) Percentage of Orgs with >49% Women in High Paid Group Percentage of Orgs with Avg Women's Pay >= Men's (amongst High Paid)
NGO 45 20 84 30 20
Think Tank 30 10 75 20 20
Foundation 52 30 70 60 40
CGD 40 100 83    

Back to caveats: these numbers can only be taken as suggestive given the small size of our sample. We didn’t do more data collection for this blog post because attempts to automate the process failed—though many thanks to CGD’s Mike Brown for trying—and the manual exercise is reasonably labor intensive. We’d happily be a part of a (funded) exercise that scaled up the analysis, looked at trends over time, and examined factors that lie behind variation in women’s representation at top pay levels on the nonprofit space. There is more information to analyze including expanding our gender analysis to leadership positions and board membership. It’s also crucial to look at this through the lens of racial diversity: while women make up 48 percent of board members in nonprofits, only 20 percent of board members are people of color (compared to a 38 percent population share in the US as a whole).

And it would be great to be able to look at trends over time. That can add important details to the story: a recent study of the World Bank’s staff found that the average woman earns 77 percent as much as the average man, with the big reason for that gap being that women tended to have entered at lower employment grade levels in the institution (women and men who started at the same time and grade in the Bank have fairly similar wages years later).

But if these numbers broadly hold up, they suggest US institutions involved in international development aren’t sufficiently practicing what they preach when it comes to the importance of diversity and equality to outcomes—and they are less effective as a result. More (and more fairly remunerated) women in nonprofit leadership will change what the sector does for the better.  

We welcome comments about methodology or concerns with our data source—or anything else!


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.