Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Sacrifice and Success in the Nonprofit Sector

A very interesting Give and Take item was highlighted in The Chronicle yesterday. Leave it to Dan Pallota of Harvard Business to outline the stark contrast between nonprofit and for-profit compensation. He breaks it down to the b-school (or b-school equivalent) crowd,

You must watch your classmates who chose the for-profit sector pass you by on the economic highway — buy homes in better neighborhoods, send their kids to better schools, drive safer cars, take better care of their aging parents, indeed serve on the boards of and direct the very charities that employ you — but you, because you have chosen to help the indigent, you must sacrifice — you can have none of this power, none of this security.
Individuals who choose work in the nonprofit sector cannot and should not expect to make an annual salary that is close to the private sector income earned in an equivalent position. Not even as a nonprofit CEO (ehem - see Food & Friends).

I think this crew of ReGenerates all support higher median wages for nonprofit workers as well as fair health and retirement benefits, especially for those who work on the front lines. And we must still demand better training, recruitment, and retention strategies for young nonprofiteers. 

But shouldn't we also recognize that working in the nonprofit sector: a) allows many of us to pursue our passions for a lifetime; b) often offers a healthier environment for work/life balance; c) centers on values such as giving back and assisting the underserved; and d) helps us sleep a little easier at night?

I realize that sounds ridiculous and self-inflated. But you know what? My salary is moderate enough to allow me a corner of a soapbox. And this is my reality and the reality of many others like me. These are the intangible "benefits" that rocketed me out of a Masters program into the sector and it is what will keep me here.  

Leave me to rest easy as my classmates "pass [me] by on the economic highway." I'll be driving my Civic in the slow lane, enjoying the breeze. 


Ida said...

As a recent graduate who is employed in the nonprofit sector, I read Sonya's and Pilar's posts with interest. I am now earning a very modest income - in fact not much more than what I was making after college, when I worked at another nonprofit.

The organization I currently work for specializes in a field that is ideally very close to my heart. But, a meager salary with NO benefits (plus bosses who demand so much but give so little), makes it very difficult for me to justify the 2 years of rigorous training in grad school that I just left behind.

Let it be known that I am a big fan of emotional fulfillment at work. I also plan on pursuing a career in the nonprofit field. Having said that, I can no longer vouch for the argument that the salary differences between the nonprofit and the for-profit sectors can be explained by the former's promise to offer emotional bliss.

Even though I am working at an organization whose mission I identify with, I can't say that I feel emotionally fulfilled. While the organization (as many others I have come to know over the years) chooses its employees from top schools with impressive backgrounds, they hardly tap into their skills.

Plus, many employers in the nonprofit sector assume that they have a right to exploit their employees, because they are so vested in their work. That is not acceptable. I should not be asked to put my life on hold just because I happen to care about my work.

These may be the words of a disillusioned graduate in the worst of times, however, if the sector is to thrive, then it needs to invest more in its employees instead of expecting them to make all the sacrifices.

Anonymous said...

I question Sonya’s assumption that people cannot take pleasure in their work if it is not tied to a good-for-the-world bottom line. To be sure, I would and could never thrive in a private sector environment, but I have friends and family members who do. They entered the corporate world and found enjoyable and challenging careers—which happen to have the added benefit of paying well.

On the other hand, I am in absolute agreement with Sonya’s assessment of the path of a non-profiteer and the intangible rewards inherent in a nonprofit position, paycheck aside. I have no regrets and do not feel that I made any undue sacrifices in the 8 years that I spent in a direct service environment. In fact, if anything, my relatively modest nonprofit wages instilled me with creative and disciplined budgeting skills.

Sure—folks at nonprofits should make more money—but not to the scale of the private sector. In fact, raising the wages to that level would attract exactly the wrong type of people into the front lines of service. I do not want my nonprofit counter-parts to be following dollars—or power or job security for that matter—I want them following their passion!

Pilar Oberwetter

Anonymous said...

There are a number of interesting thoughts in this post. But what I found most intriguing was the point that our for-profit colleagues may ultimately end up on nonprofit boards, guiding the strategic direction of the very organizations which we serve. Does this strike anyone else as ironic?

I have often thought that nonprofit boards, at least those of the larger, more conventionally successful organizations, are a paradox. The people chosen to the serve ideally have relevant expertise, but at the end of the day, they're often chosen based on their ability to secure or provide funding. . . Can we revise this model? Should we?

Kehinde A. Togun said...

I agree with Pilar, it would be dangerous if those of us in the nonprofit sector were "following dollars—or power or job security" Instead, we should be following our passion.

However, as someone committed to the sector, it would be great if while following my passion, I had job security and a modest income to take care of my various responsibilities. Sallie Mae has not been keen on letting go of my loans because I am passionate about international development; neither does Verizon, or the IRS for that matter - when a proportion of my income is removed bi-weekly. (For clarification, I am not opposed to paying taxes).