Building a fairer salary model together

By Darrah Hassell, 2nd May 2024

Photo courtesy: Unsplash, James Cameron

Early in 2023, we decided collectively that we wanted all salaries at DFF to be transparent within the team. When we looked at the overview together, there were a lot of question marks. It was very difficult for many to understand why staff earned what they did in relation to their colleagues and if the salaries were fair. The salary band model we had in place at the time that was established in the early “start-up” phase when the organisation had just a handful of staff needed to be changed to adapt to a larger team.

This process followed work done together with the consultant Fabiola Mizero and her team in 2022 to adopt a more anti-oppressive framework in the workplace. As we discussed what it meant in terms of staff wellbeing, creating structures to enable staff to thrive and mitigating oppressive dynamics inherent to the workplace, one key topic came up as essential: compensation. How could we make sure salaries at DFF were set in a way that was fair, transparent, and which rewarded the skills and contributions we value?

Since DFF had grown in complexity, a new salary model was needed that could better reflect the differences in responsibilities and roles. And it was clear that since compensation affects staff wellbeing so deeply, all staff needed to have a real say in the salary model reform.

We would like to share the process we followed in the hope that it may be helpful to others, just as we found it helpful to be guided by the processes which other organisations, such as Goldeimer and Open Collective, have shared.

Choosing an approach


We all agreed that our former model wasn’t fit for purpose but how big of a change did we need? We identified several options: a more refined salary band model, a grid or matrix model, a formulaic model, or the option of simply allowing each member of staff to decide their own salary. After a team discussion, we unanimously agreed that a formulaic model was the right fit for DFF.

In a formulaic model, you start with a base salary amount, which we defined as a living wage for a fresh graduate, and then add additional components to the base salary to reach the full salary amount. A simplified version of this model with just two additional components is shown in the diagram below.

In contrast, in a traditional salary band model a role is placed within a category with a salary range or band. Then usually through a private negotiation process, the employee and employer come to an agreement within the permitted band. Therefore, the adoption of a formulaic model significantly increases transparency and reduces arbitrary differences in compensation for similar responsibilities.

Why is a formulaic approach the right fit for us?


DFF is a small organisation and we focus on quality rather than continued growth. With fewer than 15 people, we all work together closely and could sense that no two roles were equal in burden. By separating out the different factors which make up a role we could achieve a nuanced salary total that accounted for the different ways in which each staff member contributes to the organisation and compensates them accordingly.

Secondly, staff wanted a wide range of aspects to be considered in the salary, from role factors, such as degree of strategic input, to justice factors, like social class and race.  A formulaic approach has the flexibility to incorporate all these elements in the total salary.

Determining the components we think are most important in salary


Next we decided which components should be considered. For each component, we asked what is being done at DFF? How is it being done? Which roles are currently compensated? Which are not? In the end, for the role the employee plays in the organisation, we decided that the following components should be the ones that determined salary:

  • Degree of legal responsibility or liability for the organisation
  • Years of work experience (both at DFF and prior to joining)
  • Degree of strategic input and direction
  • Degree of operational leadership
  • Extent of invisibilised labour and care work
  • Extent of external representation of DFF’s work

For each of these components each member of the team receives a score. The higher the score, the higher the additional amount added to their total salary for that factor.

Photo courtesy: Unsplash, Francesco-Gallarotti

Who decides how much everyone contributes?


The next question was who should be responsible for deciding the score received by each team member for each component. Should this be left up to individuals to self-rate, or would there be a wider process, perhaps including a committee?

We decided that each team member should self-assess and share their self-assessment with the wider team. The whole team then met and discussed the accuracy of different self-assessments (including both overall fairness and more granular adjustments based on a collective decision-making process). In the end, we reached a score for each team member that everyone was happy with.

Following the team agreement, we submitted a final proposal to DFF´s board for approval.

Annual review of roles and amendments to the model


Our new salary model is not set in stone. The factors, their definitions and staff individual scores will be reviewed annually. In the next phase we will further examine and decide on the inclusion of justice factors (social class, race, gender, sexuality, ability). Our goal is to use a series of self-assessment questions for each staff member to reflect on their relative privilege and oppression in society. The result will be an additional salary component, which is larger for those who experience a greater degree of oppression and smaller for those who experience less. Of course, no financial sum can ever compensate for the harm done by racism, sexism, transphobia, or ablism, but we nonetheless want our salary structure to at least recognise the harm these forms of oppression cause and the financial implications that they have.

Time investment


Adding up all the time spent on research, drafting the model, and coordinating the team sessions, we invested internal resources heavily into the process. We were willing to invest this time because we believe that a salary model that is fair, transparent, and which is understood and supported by the staff is crucial to maintaining a cohesive and motivated team. In addition, we believe that this new salary model is an essential foundation that provides the flexibility we need as we move to a new leadership model, enabling salaries to evolve in a clear and consistent way as staff to take on the new roles and responsibilities this leadership model will require.

The value of collectively designing a salary structure


For this process to work required a high level of buy-in and participation by the whole team. Before that could happen, there needed to be deep trust between team members so we could have open discussions about financial topics, which are uncomfortable territory for many of us. Doing it collectively was in and of itself an exercise in trust-building within the team. A top-down approach to revise the salary structure was first envisaged but was met with less involvement of the team. To get the results we wanted required building trust in the process and between team members over several months. Fortunately, as a small team with many longstanding members, the format worked well and team meetings on the subject were easy to have.

A larger lesson learned that extends beyond the salary model is that it is crucial to create processes and a structure where staff can meaningfully engage and have real influence on the issues that matter to them most (like salary!). When given the chance, they will take ownership and drive changes that sum to a much better solution than one or two people ever could have come up with. Going through our collective salary model process was an important experience for us as a team to experiment with and learn about collective decision-making.

Overall, this process has convinced us that new, more collaborative ways of working are possible and, in the long run, are much better for everyone’s wellbeing. The salary model redesign process coupled with our leadership model formulation process (more on that to follow in future blog posts) have made us true believers in distributing (and compensating) leadership in all its forms and have taught us some of the work methods required to do so.

This blog post is part of a series of blogs about organisational changes at DFF. You can find the first blog post of the series here. An upcoming blog presenting our new leadership model is in the works.

Some resources on different models and approaches that we found helpful:


Traditional salary band model:

UN Salary Scale, Grades and Contracts

German Public Sector Workers Salary Structure (German)

Salary grid model:

Goldeimer (German)

Forumalaic model:

Open Collective

Social justice and self-determination approaches:

Betterplace Lab (German)



The Dive (German)

Raise Recruiting