More from the Nonprofit Quarterly Readers Survey

Staffing issues identified by respondents to the Nonprofit Quarterly survey–in descending order:

"-retention is difficult (receiving by far the greatest number of responses);
-benefits and wages are a concern . . . .
-recruitment is difficult . . . .
-The organization is faced with underperformance of staff members."

Ya think?  Ya think if you pay people badly and deprive them of health insurance and pensions, and respond to their complaints about that by saying, "You didn’t go into nonprofits to get rich," you might find it’s hard to attract them, or get them to do a good job, or keep them around?

The nonprofit community’s readiness to disregard and damage its workers, and its capacity to then be surprised when they leave or screw up, would be funny if it weren’t so–well, exploitative.  (The real surprise is not the scarcity of people willing to tolerate such treatment but that there’s any supply of nonprofit workers at all.)  Absolutely true and current case in point: the agency whose mission is to compel employers to abide by the labor laws in paying farmworkers, whose Board decides that the person filing those lawsuits should receive wages most secretaries would disdain and no health insurance because "That’s what they have to accept if they want to work in nonprofits."  Attorney, heal thyself.

Some folks argue that employees who get paid middle-class wages while working to serve poor people are "poverty whores," and that anyone committed to social justice should be prepared to be ill-paid [presumably until everyone is well-paid].  This is a fine example of an activity known as "cutting off your nose to spite your face."  Our goal should be to increase to critical mass the numbers of people committed to social justice–and that means rewarding, not punishing, like-minded people who also happen to need orthodontia or new shoes or a roof over their heads. 

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6 Responses to “More from the Nonprofit Quarterly Readers Survey”

  1. russburke Says:

    Dear Nonprofiteer:
    I loved this post and just want to place this addendum to: “Our goal should be to increase to critical mass the numbers of people committed to social justice–and that means rewarding, not punishing, like-minded people who also happen to need orthodontia or new shoes or a roof over their heads.”
    Try this: After all, we don’t want to become complicit in increasing the next generation of impoverished children. Our middle-class is already dissappearing!
    Hope this perspective is helpful!

  2. rick Says:

    Good post, “attorney, heal thyself” story makes me think of a couple of examples of nonprofits that advocated for municipalities to pass living wage ordinances–but to have themselves exempted from them. We’ve got work to do in our sector. Keep up your good work, Nonprofiteer!

  3. erstwhilesteve Says:

    A quick addendum to russburke’s post written on Super Tuesday: imagine what it might mean to have a national administration and legislature that is grounded in the grassroots and committed to both principals of social justice and key tasks – like universal health care. This will not be the victory, but it will be the beginning of new phase of struggle in which well-trained and strongly motivated people work in communities to build the will to make these changes. Imagine – Community organizing as a serious profession that 10-year-olds dream about …

  4. Amy K. Harbison Says:

    Enjoyed your post about recruiting and retaining people in the nonprofit sector. The Meyer Foundation, together with partners Compasspoint Nonprofit Services, The Annie E. Casey Foundation, and idealist.org, are publishing the results of a national survey which asked next generation leaders about the incentives/disincentives of nonprofit work — and the concerns about retirement, salary, worklife balance, mentoring, are interesting. The report, “Ready to Lead? Next Generation Leaders Speak Out,” will be available as a download from the Meyer Foundation website and will also be the subject of a session at the GEO Conference on March 10.

  5. Nonprofiteer Says:

    Russ: Excellent point; the goal of charities should be to alleviate need, not to create it. Virtue may be its own reward, but in the nonprofit sector we’re working hard to turn virtue into its own punishment.

    Rick: That sort of “do as I say, not as I do” may have its roots in the days when the nonprofit economy (or the poverty/social service portion of it, anyway) rested on the unwaged labor of women. It’s still true that women constitute a disproportionate share of charity volunteers–for which they’re rewarded by being stereotyped as “ladies who lunch,” but that’s another issue–but the depression of wages in the sector is probably also an historic hangover from the days when it was fine to pay women less, or not at all.

    Query, too, whether there’s a lot of unreported and therefore unlitigated wage discrimination in our sector–that is, a persistence of the attitude (long ago abandoned by for-profits) that working women don’t need to earn much because they’re being supported by better-paid male partners.

  6. Nonprofiteer Says:

    Erstwhilesteve: It certainly would be (will be?) refreshing to have political leadership with a realistic sense of what the sector can do, and what it can’t do–that is, one that expects charities to cooperate with government rather than replace it. And a president who was once a community organizer (or the active chair of a nonprofit Board, for that matter) would certainly enhance our appreciation of nonprofits. But kids dreaming of community organizing the way they dream of fighting fires? Not even Saul Alinsky could accomplish that.

    On the other hand, people who actually do fight fires for a living are often the children of people who fought fires for a living–so maybe if we start paying nonprofit employees enough, their children will be willing to stay in the family business!

    Amy: We’ll all look forward to having actual data (as opposed to the Nonprofiteer’s mere irate speculation) about the incentives and disincentives attached to working in the sector, as perceived by people who are right now choosing whether or not to make this a primary career. Far too much of the conversation about nonprofit work has been focused on its role as an after-career for Baby Boomers with money and leisure; let’s hear about people for whom this is not a hobby, but a calling.

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