Labor relations at nonprofits; or, Shut up and serve your indenture!

Thanks to Phil Cubeta at Gifthub for pointing out the view of Jeremy Gregg that charity employees are overpaid.  On January 28, Mr. Gregg wrote,

I am so tired of hearing from my peers that we’re making a sacrifice
being employed in a non-profit organization. Making less money than we
might earn in another pursuit? Perhaps… though few of us would be
candidates for my organization’s food pantry, I suppose we could argue
that we — like many of this blog’s readers — disappointed our dear
financial planners when we made the choice to join this sector instead
of pursuing more lucrative ventures.

But please, dear friends
and fools of charitable intent, do not for one moment pretend that you
are making a sacrifice. The opportunity costs are minimal in this
regard when we look at the enormous gains we have made in other areas:
seeing the impact of our work every day, feeling the sense of ownership
over our actions, revelling in the glorious triumphs of lives changed
through a series of events that we set in motion… we make no
sacrifices to be here. Indeed, we might even be seen to be selfish.

For me, the sacrifice would be to forego these rewards in pursuit of monetary gain so that my family would be better off.

What pisses the Nonprofiteer off about this blithe dismissal of a significant economic injustice is the way it overlooks the entire pink-collar sector of the charitable world: people earning less than $40,000 with no health insurance who struggle to support their families and pay their student loans for the sake of jobs without meaningful authority or autonomy or opportunity to see the impact their work makes.  It’s hard to revel in the glory of lives changed when your own life consists of working 70 hours a week with no overtime pay, taking direction from 8 or 10 different people with exaggerated notions of their own importance, and getting no credit for your contributions. 

This is a gender issue, in a sector that’s always subsidized itself on the unwaged labor of women.  The  Nonprofiteer’s concern is not white men who are making only $100,000 a year when they could be making $300,000 but women (and people of color of both genders) who are expected to be grateful to make less than a law-firm secretary.  If suggesting that people who do the world’s important work be paid as if the work were important–and as if their futures, and the futures of their children, were as important as those of the clients they’re serving–if suggesting that is being "selfish," the Nonprofiteer pleads guilty. 

If charities are the public services they claim and are intended to be, they should be paid for by the public–not by the sacrifice of selected individuals.  And if Mr. Gregg doubts that there’s sacrifice involved, the Nonprofiteer suggests he consider asking the person who types his letters. 


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4 Responses to “Labor relations at nonprofits; or, Shut up and serve your indenture!”

  1. Jeremy Gregg Says:

    Glad you found my article! I appreciate you sharing your thoughts.

    A few reactions:

    1. Nowhere in my article did I say that charity workers are overpaid. I suggested that we are adequately paid if you consider the alternative benefits that we receive.

    2. That being said, I am not making $100,000 per year, and do not believe that this is the face of the sector.

    3. Your comments on gender disparities are justified, but are hardly limited to the non-profit sector.

    4. I never doubted that certain sacrifices are being made by people who work in this sector. However, I also pointed out that sacrifices would be required to work outside the sector for a higher wage. This was the central point I was trying to make.

    5. I type my own letters, thank you. And I often hand write them, when I can afford the time.

  2. Jeremy Gregg Says:

    And one more thing: if it’s any consolation, my organization has a corporate minimum wage of $10 per hour. Still not enough to make anyone rich, but it’s our attempt to advocate for living wages for our staff.

  3. Gallagher Says:

    $10 adds up to about 20k per year pretax- enough to qualify for low income services at my current NPO. I do think non-profits do a diservice by enlarging or sustaining the lower class they intend to serve.

  4. Nonprofiteer Says:

    Mr./Ms. Gallagher’s response to Mr. Gregg is more eloquent than anything I could say. Many (dare I say most?) nonprofit employees are NOT adequately compensated–certainly not at $10 an hour, which though it bests the minimum wage still leaves people below the poverty line–, and the fact that their work is interesting and valuable and satisfying doesn’t change that fact one whit.

    And if for-profit companies underpay their women workers because it’s what the market will bear, that doesn’t justify having nonprofits underpay their women workers. We’re excluded from the market’s largesse; why should we be stuck with the market’s morals?

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