The June 2017 Board of Trustees meeting just finished at NOLS Alaska. Here are some highlights from the open sessions, including an explanation of the Compensation Comparables study, recently conducted by Linda Lindsey. These are only highlights; the official minutes will be published, as usual, in the next Board of Trustees Report in October. The Board Report, available online at the link above and in paper copies at every NOLS location, really is good reading, and is easy to navigate if you look at the Table of Contents and find the sections that interest you.
The Marketing Committee
The Marketing Committee discussed, among other things, some exciting developments in how NOLS plans to use scholarship money to strategically support enrollment in key areas, such as on semesters. The detailed analysis by Joe Ostlund, found on pages 91-95 in the Board report, is really worth reading: http://rendezvous.nols.edu/files/Human_Resources/Board_Reports/NOLS-BOT-Report-June-2017-Open-Session-web.pdf
In short, after thoughtful discussion at the February Board meeting (and at previous ones) ended with the impression that NOLS could be more intentional with our goals and priorities in awarding scholarships, the Admissions and Marketing department got to work crunching the numbers and creating a nuanced strategy.
- The shorter and cheaper IC ($2,900 vs. $5,000+) will free up $100,000 of scholarship money, which will be put towards fall semesters.
- NOLS Patagonia, which has received a disproportionate amount of scholarship money almost since its founding to support the development of Chilean instructors, will give up a few of their many scholarships, including those for mountaineering courses and the PY. The $64,000 to $100,000 saved will also go towards fall semesters (Presumably, Patagonia semesters will still have one Chilean scholarship student, as they always have).
- There will be fewer scholarships for summer courses ($50-75k total).
The overall goal is to support enrollment on semesters, which has been declining for years. Semesters provide a very large proportion of NOLS’s total revenue, operate with much greater operational efficiency than shorter courses (see Jamie O’Donnell’s report on 7-9 day courses, pages 53-58 of the board report), provide off-season employment for faculty and in-town staff, and extend NOLS’s mission in a deep and full way, due to their length. Declining enrollment on our longer courses means that, even while total numbers of NOLS students are slowly increasing, total student days spent at NOLS are slowly going down. Turning around the decline in enrollment of semesters is, for all these reasons, a key strategic goal at the school. The NIA supports this goal in particular, due to the positive effect of semesters on off-season employment, and thus on long-term, year-round job security for instructors.
Analysis of the Systems and Services Optimization survey, responded to in 2015 by many groups at NOLS, including the NIA, is yielding a set of priorities for short- and long-term changes in NOLS’s organization and systems (see page 97-99 of the Board report). One particularly exciting element is a total revamp of Rendezvous, most likely using Google Sites, on budget for FY18. This has been discussed and requested for many, many years, and it is exciting to see a plan and forward progress.
The Students Staff, and Studies Committee, including the Compensation Comparables Study
Linda Lindsey conducts a “comparables” study every three to four years in order to determine how NOLS’ payscales stack up to other organizations in outdoor education. She explained in detail how these studies work, including where the data for comparison comes from (and why, for field staff and wilderness medicine staff, data is very difficult to find).
First off, NOLS’ goal, since the 1990s, has been to slightly exceed the median pay rate for non-profits in outdoor education in the U.S. (i.e., neither to have the highest pay nor the lowest pay, but to stay slightly ahead of the middle). So, the Comparables Study described how NOLS compensation for in-town, field, and wilderness medicine staff compares to the median among comparable organizations. Each area also included detailed analysis of different seniority levels, and changes from the last study in 2014; these details won’t be summarized here.
The available data for comparison is very different for in-town, field, and wilderness medicine staff. For in-town staff, Linda uses the Non-Profit Times study of 300 non-profits across the nation, specifically for 22 non-profits of a similar size to NOLS in terms of revenue. She also compares NOLS to the Fremont County Wage Survey, which surveys mostly for-profit business in Fremont County, Wyoming, where Lander is located. This information puts NOLS in-town compensation well below the median, generally 70-90%. In addition, NOLS employees at mid- and upper pay levels tend to have more seniority than those in similar positions at comparable organizations. This ought to put the NOLS employees’ compensation even higher, but in fact it is lower. Linda said NOLS has been below median for in-town compensation ever since she has been doing these studies.
For field staff, much less data is available. Because there are no third-party studies, NOLS simply contacts other organizations and offers to exchange information. For reasons of competitiveness, few organizations are willing to make this exchange, so NOLS simply cannot find out what most of our competitors are paying their field staff. For this study, we have data from 7 Outwoard Bound locations, the Wild Rockies Field Institute, Where There Be Dragons, and the National Center for Adventure Education. This comparison puts NOLS field pay above the median, generally 110-120%. Also, none of these organizations continues to increase pay at seniority levels above 200 weeks, while NOLS goes all the way to 500 weeks (albeit with small increases).
For Wilderness Medicine staff, the data is not much better. WMA, our main competitor, does not share their information, so we use the payscales for adjunct faculty at several community colleges who teach EMT courses. On the NOLS side, we compare only the pay for the Lead Instructor on WEMT courses. On this basis, NOLS is 167% of the median for lower seniority positions, and 106% at the top of the pay scale.
One of the upshots of all this is that in-town pay appears to be farther from median than field staff pay. Linda offered several theoretical solutions to resolve this discrepancy, including freezing or reducing field pay. However, vigorous discussion, with contributions from your NIA representative and several of the field and in-town staff present, ended with a sense that NOLS needs more information on comparables for field and Wilderness Medicine faculty in order to make decisions on the larger comparison between the three sets (i.e., to try to get them all situated at the same distance from the median). There was general agreement that the data for in-town staff comparables are very good, and clearly indicate that NOLS is not meeting its goal of being slightly above the median, but that the situation is not so clear for field or wilderness medicine staff. There was also concern that the in-town side uses NOLS data mostly for full-time, benefited positions, while the field and Wilderness Medicine sets are almost all contract positions with no benefits, making comparison between these sets even harder.
Just to be perfectly clear, it did not appear that freezing or reducing pay for anyone is actually in the offing; just that the situation for in-town compensation appears increasingly urgent, and the situation for field and wilderness medicine staff is not as well understood.
Linda also provided statistics for turnover of full-time in-town staff, which is an astonishing 26% per year (meaning that 26% of in-town staff leave NOLS every year, to be replaced by brand-new people - other NOLS staff also move positions within NOLS every year). Staff members present asked about part-time in-town staff turnover, which appears to be hard to measure, since these individuals technically ‘leave’ at the end of each part-time contract. NOLS also has turnover figures for field and wilderness medicine staff, which are in the teens. It is not clear to the NIA how this is measured, since field staff all work by contract, rarely work full-time, and sometimes return after long hiatuses. Regardless, there was general consensus that 26% for in-town staff is too high.
The General Session
The in-town staff presentation during the General Session was made by Kristen Brown, Senior Admissions Officer, who will be the representative for in-town staff at the June meetings for the foreseeable future. Kristen’s main topic was workload and turnover in the admissions office. The salary itself turns away many job applicants, leading to frequent and frustrating searches to replace admissions officers, who rarely last for more than one year. Kristen’s realistic and optimistic goal is for them to last through at least two busy seasons (spring is their busiest time), and an ideal goal would be for admissions officers to stay five years in their positions. Most admissions officers are quite young. Some have never taken a course, but these are usually sent on a short field course so that they learn more about the NOLS field experience. Possible reasons for the turnover, in addition to the low salary, are overwork (50-odd emails per day, 2-3 hours on phone and chat per day), a lack of ‘onboarding’, or clear training and apprenticeship before they jump fully into their responsibilities, and a felt distance from the rewarding experiences of actual student outcomes on courses. Kristen and others in the department are working hard on creative ideas to improve this situation, and have made good progress on improving the onboarding experience. She is hoping that this makes newer admissions officers feel more successful, and thus makes them more likely to stay longer in their positions.
Sydney Clark, NOLS Diversity and Inclusion Manager, gave a 45 minute presentation on diversity and inclusion efforts at NOLS. A main emphasis was the need for NOLS to more actively reach out to minority communities to show them the value of a NOLS course and show that they could fit in and belong in the NOLS community. It isn’t enough just to expect minority individuals to come to us, and maybe offer them scholarships to make this easier. Sydney gave the example of the exploding phenomenon of social media-driven travel communities for affluent African-Americans, which shows that individuals in this community are seeking exotic, challenging, and adventurous experiences, are willing to join groups and pay for it, and thus might be very interested in NOLS, if NOLS were to actively reach out and make it clear that they can belong here. Sydney pointed out that scholarship-driven diversity efforts, while important as part of an overall strategy, do not present a sustainable business model, nor a sustainable, long-term model for real diversity and inclusion. 20 minutes of discussion followed, with some enthusiasm from the Trustees for the idea, aptly articulated by David Cohen, that NOLS ought to approach diversity and inclusion as a business opportunity, with a business strategy, rather than as separate efforts to be added to our basic business model.
John Gans thanked Pip Coe for her sixteen years of service in her current position, and emphasized the amazing success she has had. NOLS is in a completely different situation in terms of development, fundraising, and endowment, largely thanks to Pip’s efforts and direction. John also described the assembly of a search committee to hire Pip’s replacement. He expects to include phone interviews for the candidates with one or two current faculty members, who also have extensive experience in the development field.
As usual, the meeting was full of passion, energy, humor, and very good ideas. The meeting ended with a spectacular party at the Farm, with 130 attendees who came out of the woodwork from all over Alaska. Several of the Trustees and their family members, along with John Gans and Jeff Buchanan, are now off for a 5-day Board sea kayaking trip to get a taste for one of NOLS Alaska’s primary operating areas, Prince William Sound.